The Revolution Will Be Automated

I wrote a post about a conversation that I once actually had with someone.

Every day, when we let it, the world gets better. Things get easier. And this is a good thing. Except that sometimes older people get angry that the people who come after will benefit from the world being a better place. “Why, in my day…” they’ll begin, and rattle off some thing that you used to have to do that you don’t have to do anymore, because it was made obsolete or trivial.

And every business I have ever been a part of has always been searching for ways to automate, to consolidate, to increasing productivity while reducing staff. And that’s a good thing!

But the question brought up in the conversation and one I’m always asking people is “What then?”

Let’s just take an example. Some fast food restaurants have tried out self-service ordering kiosks. A customer walks up to a terminal, and puts in their own order, tapping items off the menu, and customizing those items. Now, I’ve seen some people confused by those terminals, and one I used was so strangely designed that even I had trouble with it. But if they became mainstream, the learning curve would lessen, people would get used to them, and they’d become just another part of normal life. Now, for this example, let’s assume that by putting in self-service kiosks a fast food restaurant could eliminate 1 person per shift from their schedule – which would be roughly like 3 employees. There are roughly 247,000 fast food restaurants in the US.

Where would those 741,000 people get jobs after they were laid off?

My local grocery stores, Targets and WalMarts already have self-checkout lanes. There are about 47,000 of those. They probably were able to drop 2 or 3 people from their staff, so that’s another 150,000. And if those self-checkout lanes got better (and they will), then they’ll probably be able to cut more.

Think about banks. When is the last time you went into one or used even the drive up teller that was a person? I don’t even have to deposit checks at the bank anymore. I can do it on their mobile app. And any time I’ve needed cash, I go to an ATM. In fact, personally, the last time I actually entered a bank or spoke to a human at a bank was about 26 months ago. And before that it was probably several years. How many people have been downsized because of ATMs and mobile apps in the banking industry?

Every time we make an advancement in technology, it displaces workers, and they have to go find another job somewhere else. They may even have to go back to school, or take an entry level job even though they have years of experience because they are going into a new field since all of the fields they have experience in are automating too.

You might be thinking that this isn’t a problem yet, but go look at all the articles about “millennials” destroying industries because they don’t have money to buy the things previous generations bought because they are underemployed at low wage jobs. Just look at all the young people trying to make a living on social media, be it playing music on YouTube, streaming games on twitch, or trying to be a brand on Instagram. Older people will tell them to “get a job”, but where? Where should they go? What industries are expanding? Where are there older people retiring and the jobs not being eliminated behind them? In fact, those older people, they probably aren’t retiring, because they don’t have the funds to be able to do so.

We are, in the not too distant future, going to reach a critical mass of people who can’t find work because all the jobs worth doing have been automated, a critical mass of people who don’t make enough at the jobs they can still get to afford basic needs and a little entertainment. And people who live paycheck to paycheck, they don’t retire, so it’ll only get worse.

It is a problem, and in this country we need to start thinking about it. What do we do when there are no more jobs? What do we do when so much wealth is held by so few people that the majority of “us” are poor?

That’s the place where revolutions get ugly.

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