Apocalypse Soon: Adrift in the Information Economy

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Robotics, AI, and automated technologies will radically disrupt the global workforce in the coming decade. New jobs will replace the old ones, but how will workers make the transition?

The video above depicts a restaurant that has fully automated the production of custom hamburgers. Here’s how it works:

·        A customer enters exact specifications into a terminal, pays with a card, and the process begins.

·        A bun is fed into a slicer.

·        The halves are buttered, toasted, and cheesed.

·        As the conveyor moves along, a custom-cooked burger flips onto the bun.

·        Condiments are added.

·        Onion, tomato, and other veggies—all stored in tall plastic cylinders—are gravity fed into slicers, and are then selectively added to the sandwich as ordered.

·        At the end of the line, the customer picks up his order, which is packaged in a Styrofoam container.

The operation virtually eliminates food-prep employees, although the restaurant employs people in other capacities.

Tech Revolution and Job Loss

A lot has been said about the tech revolution and the effects it will have on the job market in the next ten to fifteen years. The general belief is that hundreds of millions of jobs currently done by people somewhere in the world will be lost to AI and robotics.

A  study by McKinsey Global Institute is a good case in point, predicting that by 2030, AI and robotics could eliminate as much as 30% of the jobs currently done by humans.  USA Today points to the same study and highlights one stat that hits close to home—73 million US-based jobs are likely to be eliminated in the next decade.  

But the study supports what most experts believe—when the smoke clears, the current tech revolution will result in net jobs gained, not lost. Susan Lund, MGI’s Director of Research and co-author of the study supports the jobs-gained prediction, but adds that we’re in for “massive shifts” in our economy, as the current tech tsunami reshapes the business landscape. Lund concludes by predicting a “difficult transition.”

As for me, I think Lund’s phrasing might be a vast understatement of the size and scope of what’s about to happen.  Some few will transition into related jobs—for example, instead of cooking burgers, stocking the burger machine with new ingredients. But others will be forced to acquire entirely new skill sets—information-economy skill sets. And that’s much easier said than done.

The Ever More Exclusive Information Economy

Here’s a hard reality: the information economy is becoming more exclusive by the day, not less. Take the IT (Information Technology) industry, for example. IT folk are on a veritable treadmill of learning and updating of skills just to keep pace with current best practices. For an outsider to get in is tantamount to boarding a bullet train at full speed.

A Logical Path for the Displaced

One logical alternative for the displaced is to make their own jobs—to start new businesses. But almost any new business will require an online presence to survive, which often means a website and a portfolio of other technologies that are necessary to actual generate revenue. Assuming a displaced textile-mill worker could pull off the website part, an exponentially bigger problem is the content necessary to drive traffic, an absolute prerequisite to revenue.

A Billion+ Useless Websites

This conclusion is reinforced by TekEye.UK, which reports that of the 1.8 billion websites in existence, less than 10% are active. Think of that. More than 1.6 billion people were sold the idea that a website would somehow solve their income problems but, instead, ended up costing them time and money. Turns out, ecommerce is not as easy as GoDaddy would have people think.

Tightening Social Screws

As of 2019, tens of millions of entrepreneurs have foregone the website option in favor of a social-media only approach. But social platforms are tired of the freeloading and are tightening the screws on small businesses, virtually eliminating organic spread of content on business pages. In other words, what was once free now costs money. As I’ve stated in other articles, I’m not blaming social platforms, which have the right to monetize and an obligation to shareholders to max out profits. 

I’m just underscoring my point: that something’s got to give. 70+ million Americans hitting the job market in a compressed time frame, the vast majority of whom are not equipped to compete in the information economy, could make the great depression look like a company picnic.

On the Bright Side

As a tech-industry insider, I believe many entrepreneurs will see the massive market disruption as an opportunity, and will bring new technologies to market that will bridge the old economy with the new one. In fact, if I were to guess, I’d say such technologies may already be under development.