I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, August 03, 2014

Prediction Three: Our jobless future

I've been with my current employer for almost 19 years. I won't specify who I work for; you can see my last post for various reasons why I think it's a bad idea to publicly discuss your current employer online. But, I'm going to mention my current job obliquely because I think there's an important data point. I was present when my workplace opened its doors. At the time, we had 21 full time employees. Today, we have 7 full time employees, and the threshold for being full time is 30 hours a week, not 40.

Where did two thirds of our staff go? Part of our staff was lost due to a changing business climate. I work in an industry built around printing stuff, and print is dying. Fewer companies print catalogues or employee manuals, and marketing is done more online than via direct mail. But, we also lost a lot of need for warm bodies because our technology became more sophisticated. We used to need several cashiers on hand to manage transactions. Now, people can pay with a credit card without standing in line. Customers also don't need to come into the store to place orders. They can order stuff online, pay for it, and have it delivered without ever interacting with our store. Other jobs that were once done in house are outsourced to a larger production network that works because computer technology lets the work flow around to fill available capacity. Computers have made my workplace a lot leaner and more efficient.

You see it everywhere. When I go grocery shopping, I aim toward the self checkout lanes, since they often move faster. Here in Hillsborough, there's still one gas station that has full service attendants. I never go there, preferring to save a few cents by pumping my own gas, and save time by paying at the pump. One gas station I shop at, Sheetz, lets me order subs from a touch screen. $4 foot longs, toasted on pretzel buns, made to order, very tasty. That price point is probably possible because they don't have to pay cashiers. They've shifted some of the work load to the consumer. If the added work brings lower prices, I'm a fan.

Cheryl and I often go biking through a really nice neighborhood, and it's common to see landscaping crews working in the yard. A few weeks ago, we saw a solar powered robotic lawnmower working the front yard of one of the houses.

Robots will mow our lawns. They'll also soon be delivering our packages, or at least driving the trucks. Yes, robotic trucks will have accidents that will lead to expensive lawsuits. But, guess what? Human drivers also have accidents that lead to expensive lawsuits. Robotic truck drivers will be able to drive all night and won't ever be intoxicated distracted by phone calls. They won't have lead foots, and will get much better gas mileage than human drivers. They'll probably drive slower, obeying posted speed limits, but will make up by never needing to take lunches or pit stops to empty bladders. Once insurance companies start giving companies price breaks for using robotic drivers, humans will only be on trucks to help unload... though, of course, the technology for a truck loading and unloading robot is probably already being marketed.

Maybe you're thinking that your job is too highly skilled for you to ever be replaced by a machine. Maybe. But, I predict that within twenty years, human surgeons will be obsolete, replaced by machines far more nimble and precise, seeing what they're doing with senses far superior to human sight and touch. Sure, someone will have to build those databases and maintain them. But the educated labor forces will increasingly be drawn from countries with far lower wages.

Of course, there are some jobs that machines probably can't do as well as humans. I like to think that writing novels is one of these jobs. But, that doesn't mean I have job security in the face of ever evolving technology. E-books have already disrupted publishing, providing strong downward pressure on pricing. Now, there are services that allow you to read an unlimited number of books each month for one fixed price. Authors do get royalties if their books are read, just as musicians get some small payment if their song is streamed on Spotify. But, with all things digital, the price trends keep pushing toward free, and it's hard to make a profit when you're producing content that no one pays for. If you don't offer free books, there are tens of thousands of writers eager to be read who will gladly give away their work to build name recognition, trusting that they'll figure out how to make money at what they're doing later in the process.

I know all of this sounds a bit gloomy. However, a lot of the jobs we're losing are jobs that made more use of human bodies than human minds. The same technology that disrupts industries also opens up possibilities. Studio time for a musician used to be expensive, disturbing albums difficult and costly. Now, you can record, edit, and distribute from your home computer. The odds of making money have declined, but the cost of making yourself heard have also declined, giving more people a shot at making it big than ever before. I personally know a dozen authors who never passed the arbitrary threshold of finding a publisher willing to pay an advance on their novels who now manage catalogues of a dozen self published works, all of which are making at least some money. It's not just writers and musicians who have lower initial costs to launching a career. For almost any talent you care to develop, there are instructional videos on YouTube. While college costs sky \rocket, the amount of free and useful information increases online. And you no longer have to wait for a class to be taught every other semester in order to get the knowledge you're hungry for. The lectures and study material are probably a few keystrokes away. One day, it won't matter what degree you have, only what skills and know-how you have.

We may be on the cusp of a golden age of human creativity and productivity. Or, we may be about to spiral into an abyss where we're all so broke and depressed about a machine taking our job that we won't even leave our houses. The future will come down to a million individual decisions about how we're going to adapt and respond to our rapidly changing world. My own choice: Find some small way to improve myself each day, and keep moving forward.

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