It’s Time for the 21st Century
One of the things that’s driving me absolutely bonkers this election season is the focus all the candidates have on returning the USA to the economy of the 1950’s and 60’s. All of them, but especially Messers Trump and Sanders, seem to think that if we wall ourselves off from the rest of the world, we can return to those halcyon days.
It’s a pipe dream, and if you’re buying into it, you might be stuffing something other than tobacco in your pipe. I’m going to drop some knowledge on you that you might have heard whispers of, but never been forced to grasp. The “good ol’ days” are gone forever – and they’re never coming back. Labor-intensive work, requiring little to no skills that pays well, is a thing of your memories. Soon, many of the jobs that we kid ourselves about being in demand will have gone the way of the blacksmith, the cobbler and the typesetter.
It’s understandable that most of us do not want to hear this. We grew up being to ld that if we worked hard, kept out of trouble and were good citizens we could live the American dream. Then, one day we woke up to find that our jobs disappeared and they aren’t coming back. Nobody told us why, or what jobs would replace them. Then, we found out the jobs that did replace them required all kinds of skills that most of us lacked. It didn’t matter that we’d proven ourselves as good employees by every other measure: we simply didn’t qualify for these new jobs.
It would be wonderful if we could bring back those labor-intensive jobs that didn’t require much in the way of training or skills. But here’s the thing: anything that’s labor-intensive is now being done elsewhere, for much less than you would accept as a pay rate. No company in their right mind would bring those jobs back here. As an example, let’s take Apple Corporation’s outsourcing the manufacturing of iPhones to FoxConn, a Chinese company. What nobody told you (or apparently, Mr. Trump) is that FoxConn turns out those millions of units using fewer than 100 employees, and they’re mostly engaged in packaging and shipping. 85% of an iPhone’s manufacturing is automated: it’s built by robots. So, yes, I suppose you could force Apple to build a factory in the USA. But do you suppose they wouldn’t also build the doggone thing with robots? Of course they would.
This is the reality that the snake oil salesmen have avoided telling you this election season. What’s worse, they aren’t telling you that the move away from those jobs is accelerating. They aren’t telling you that by 2025, many of the jobs we currently take for granted will be gone, replaced by automation or cheaper competition from overseas. Think of it this way: the only place you find elevator operators today is in old movies. Fairly soon, anyone who drives for a living, works in the fast-food industry, works in a warehouse or does general office work will be looking for a new career. How can I say that with certainty? Because those jobs are already being slowly replaced. Amazon now has robots doing order picking. McDonald’s is rolling out ordering kiosks in their restaurants. Self-driving vehicles are already on the roads, and companies like Uber and UPS are already in partnerships with vehicle makers to implement driverless delivery systems.
In other words, you needn’t be prescient to realize that the jobs of today are disappearing and that the jobs of yesterday are not coming back. But rather than gird Americans for this reality, we get platitudes about “forcing” manufacturing jobs back to US shores. When future jobs are discussed at all, it’s usually with vague rejoinders about “getting the skills for the jobs of tomorrow.” The politicians are afraid to tell you the truth. It’s a truth I suspect most of you have already grasped, even if you haven’t acknowledged it.
This isn’t the first time we’ve undergone a dramatic shift in the workforce. Over a century ago, our great-grandparents were faced with the shift from an agrarian society to a manufacturing one. They didn’t handle it particularly well. Now it’s out turn, as we lurch from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy. But we can do one of two things: we can embrace it and lead the world once again. Or we can fight it and get left behind, becoming a second-rate power.
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