The coming big increase in structural unemployment

Summary:  The future holds many new and strange challenges.  And some that we’ve grappled with successfully for generations, but most be confronted anew again.  Such as automation.  Links to other posts in this series appear at the end.


Science fiction now, but fact for our children or grand-children.   Excerpt from James Blish’s A Life for the Stars (1962, second in his Cities in Flight series):

The cab came floating down out of the sky at the intersection and maneuvered itself to rest at the curb next to them with a finicky precision.  There was, of course, nobody in it; like everything else in the world requiring an I.Q. of less than 150, it was computer-controlled.  The world-wide dominance of such machines, Chris’s father had often said, had been one of the chief contributors to the present and apparently permanent depression”  the coming of semi-intelligent machines into business and technology had created a second Industrial Revolution, in which only the most highly creative human beings, and those most fitted at administration, found themselves with any skills to sell which were worth the world’s money to buy.

For over a century every generation of parents in western civilization has worried how their children will find jobs.  Farms employed 90% of the population; automation reduced it to 5%.  The children of farmers worked in industry.  When automation destroyed those jobs, their children became service workers:  technicians, managers, etc.  Each step up increased our productivity, hence our income and wealth.  Can this continue?


“We’re all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that’s different. And it always will be different.”
— Dr. McCoy, star date 4729.4, in the Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer

The development of semi-intelligent machines, with simple sensory systems and IQ equivalents of 60+ (in a small domain), will destroy a serious fraction of today’s jobs.  Perhaps we’ll find new forms of employment.  Perhaps we will develop new economic systems which require fewer people to work.  If delayed into the second half of the 21st century, the almost inevitable population crash (esp. following the invention of a contraceptive pill for men) will make automation a cure — not a curse.  All of these solutions will require innovation, wisdom and luck.

Not everybody saw this coming as presciently as Blish.  In her 1989 book In The Age Of The Smart Machine: The Future Of Work And Power, Shoshana Zuboff does not even use the word unemployment — or mention the potential for massive job losses.

One of the few people thinking about this is Martin Ford, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and computer engineer.  His written about this at the Huffington Post.  I suspect overestimates this effect in the short-term.  It will have effect slowly, until the next jump in computer technology.

He is the author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (available from Amazon or as a free PDF eBook) and writes at his blog at Econfuture.

For More Information

See links to all the posts about the 3rd Industrial Revolution now under way. Some of special interest…

Other posts about robots and automation:

  1. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!, 8 April 2008
  2. The coming big increase in structural unemployment, 7 August 2010
  3. The coming Robotic Nation, 28 August 2010
  4. The coming of the robots, reshaping our society in ways difficult to foresee, 22 September 2010
  5. Economists grapple with the first stage of the robot revolution, 23 September 2012
  6. The Robot Revolution arrives, and the world changes, 20 April 2012

Other posts about employment:

  1. America passes a milestone!, 20 January 2010 — More jobs in government than manufacturing
  2. Yes, it is a “mancession”, with men losing more jobs than women. Just like all recessions., 5 October 2009
  3. Update on the “mancession”, 2 December 2009
  4. A look at the engines of Amercan job creation, 12 January 2010
  5. An ominous trend: number of Americans working for the government vs. those making things, 5 March 2010 — Update to the Oct 2009 post.
  6. A look at US unemployment, 23 June 2010



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