THE WAR ON NORMAL PEOPLE: BOOK REVIEW
Technological unemployment threatens to destroy communities, and as it stands we’re not even a little bit prepared. A new book looks at what happens when jobs start disappearing.
The advances in technology we’ve seen in recent years will alter society in unprecedented ways. This is no longer mere speculation, it’s an eventuality that’s fully borne out by the facts. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, self-driving vehicles, drones and 3D printing are already reshaping entire industries, and labour markets are scrambling to adapt.
This is the reality the United States is currently grappling with, and the focus of The War on Normal People, by tech industry insider and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. In the past few decades the US has seen faint outlines of an emerging crisis. Social mobility has declined, inequality has widened, and precarious employment has become the norm. What the book warns is that sweeping technological changes threaten to undermine what little stability the country has left.
For Yang, the main concern is that society is being fundamentally reshaped by those at the top. Wealth, intelligence and opportunity have become increasingly cloistered within small segments of the country, and those in the middle and lower classes are at risk of being left behind. As one tech company operations manager tells Yang, “I have no idea what normal people are going to do in a few years.”
Currently, all but the most creative, nurturing and specialised professions are at risk of being automated or digitised. Take the case of administrative jobs. Most have been on the cusp of automation for years now, as companies invest billions in technology that will replace call centre, data entry and clerical workers with bots and AI assistants.
The popularity of e-commerce also threatens to decimate the retail industry and put 8.8 million people out of work. The ‘Retail Apocalypse,’ as it’s become known, is already underway. Between October 2016 and May 2017, 100,000 department store workers were laid off. According to Wall Street the sector is almost completely uninvestable.
Anyone who drives for a living should be equally worried. A projected 2-3 million drivers will lose their jobs to self-driving vehicles within the next 15 years. Truck driving alone employs 3.5 million people. If even a small chunk is made obsolete, so too will many of the workers who support them in establishments like truck stops, diners and motels. Communities which are dependent on single industries are likely to crumble.
But it’s not just low skill jobs that will be replaced by machines. The threat of automation looms over professional jobs too. Sectors that involve processing information – like accounting and insurance – could be automated quite easily, and recent reports put the number of legal sector jobs which will be replaced in the next ten years at 39 percent.
In medicine, radiology and pathology will be the first to go. Yang tells of a recent demonstration by General Electric, in which some of the country’s best doctors were pitted against a computer to see which could better identify tumours on radiology films. The computer outperformed the doctors with ease. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. New software allows computers to see shades of grey that the human eye can’t, and they can reference films against data sets more numerous than any individual could hope to possess.
The Casualties of Progress
Yang calls this ‘The Great Displacement,’ and its casualties will number in the millions. It’s all well and good to say that new jobs will crop up, but those jobs will require college degrees and completely different skillsets. They’ll be located in major cities and will continue to funnel talent out of the small towns which need it the most.
The market won’t correct for this; after all, it’s indifferent to the plight of individuals. Businesses are motivated to reduce costs and maximise profits, and if it’s cheaper and more efficient to replace 100 factory workers with five technicians on laptops, it’s only sensible to do so. There’s no real malice behind it; it’s simply rational self-interest at work.
So what will become of all these displaced workers? If current trends are anything to go by, the answer is pretty grim. Faced with limited employment prospects, many drop out of the labour market altogether. A tiny sliver may take up further education or training, but most will either languish in unemployment or go on disability. This last point can’t be overstated. Since 2000, the number of disability claimants has risen by 3.5 million. It was around this time when manufacturing jobs started to disappear.
What’s more, the loss of jobs has come alongside an unprecedented spike in loneliness, drug addiction and suicides. Life expectancy among white Americans has plummeted, and men have been hit the hardest. Without the anchors of community and work, hordes of men have found themselves dislodged from the social fabric and left to flounder in poverty and despair. These are fertile conditions for society’s more antisocial tendencies to flare up.
This is what progress looks like from the inside. A century from now, it’s likely we’ll view this period as one of significant technological innovation. But right now, it’s hard to sympathise with the people driving that innovation when we have a front-row seat to the havoc its wreaking upon the middle and lower classes.
So what’s the solution? Yang proposes a Universal Basic Income — a monthly stipend of $1000 offered to every US citizen aged 18-64, regardless of their employment status. It would replace most existing welfare programs and bring everyone just above the poverty line, which currently sits at $11,770.
This isn’t a recent idea. The notion of a UBI has been floating around for decades now, and was almost passed in the US by the Nixon administration in the early 70s. Currently, there’s more incentive than ever to roll out something like it. A Roosevelt Institute analysis found that it would boost the economy by about $2.5 trillion by 2025 and create up to 4.7 million jobs.
But more importantly it would act as a lifeline for those who’ve found themselves economically adrift. “The logic of the meritocracy is leading us to ruin,” writes Yang, “because we are collectively primed to ignore the voices of the millions getting pushed into economic distress by the grinding wheels of automation and innovation.”
It’s hard to imagine a similar policy being introduced in Australia, at least right now, but there’s still plenty for us to take away from The War on Normal People. While the book is strictly American in scope, it serves as a cautionary tale for all other developed countries.
The oncoming wave of technological unemployment will be severe, and we have to be prepared. At the moment, it’s low skilled workers who are most vulnerable, but soon it will be the rest of us. The challenge we currently face, Yang writes, “is that humans need work more than work needs us.”