If you’re reading this, there’s a 1 in 8 chance that you will be unemployed in the next decade. This will not be like normal layoffs or getting fired. Twelve percent of the workforce will not have a job at all. That’s 19 million Americans without a means to provide for themselves or their families. Their entire work category will be eliminated. The twelve percent will cut across blue collar and white collar lines as all routine work gets automated away. You feel safe because you’re not a truck driver, retail clerk, or factory work. However, the machines are coming for you paralegals, mortgage brokers, accountants, and the rest of your office-dwelling ilk. So what becomes of the Twelve Percenters?
Left without the employment they have grown accustomed to for sustaining themselves, masses of displaced citizens will be scrambling for new work in a crowded field with workers from all walks of life. While newly created jobs will have vacancies, they are likely to require new skillsets or uprooting to new environments. And if recent history is any indicator of the jobs to come, many will lack the stability of more traditional work as they are part of the gig economy or contract-based work. Jobs that pay less. Jobs that offer little or no benefits. Jobs without the steady nature that previously bolstered the middle class. This effectively polarizes the job market between high-skilled, non-routine work and low-skilled, non-routine work. Routine work on both sides of the spectrum will be the middle class jobs of the past. Thus, the Twelve Percent will represent a group that spans both middle and working class citizenry. United by shared displacement, this group will be eager to return to work but likely lack the skills needed for new opportunity. Lack of funds to acquire new skills will press down upon the group forces of inertia that stretch through the rest of the country; their reduced buying power stalling the national economic engine. Automation in the trucking industry illustrates this scenario in a way that could be applicable in any industry facing threats from machines and algorithms.
Automation jeopardizes 3.5 million jobs across the trucking industry over the course of the next decade. The median annual salary for members of this work group is just over $40,000. That amounts to a total annual displacement of $140 billion. Drivers use this money to provide for themselves and their families. Mortgages, car payments, meals, and clothing are all at risk as truckers lose their livelihood and seek other options for work that are economically viable. The ripple effects of taking those drivers off the road has potential to be catastrophic to the local communities they support in their journeys across America. The gas stations, truck stops, hotels, and diners that have come to rely on economic influx from truckers will be bled dry. Similar disruptions occurred when the highway system bypassed certain town, and completely upended their economic models. The cities along Route 66 are prime examples. Some still remain as windswept ghost towns to this day. But unlike the truckers, employees of the small towns they travel through are not unionized. They lack the organized structure to create solutions across disparate job categories. While lacking in resources, the sheer size of the Twelve Percent contingent will be enough to sway national political discourse toward policies focused on sweeping support and bipartisan solutions for putting Americans back to work. Such relief may come in the form of Universal Basic Income or a jobs and training program of massive scale. This would be akin to the fictional America Works Program from House of Cards, but hopefully without the misappropriated FEMA funds…
Thankfully, there is a historical precedent for such a program. The Works Project Administration implemented by President Franklin D Roosevelt sets a blueprint that can be followed to an extent. However, to cover the projected 19 million unemployed, modern implementation will be more than twice as large as the WPA. The Federal Project Number One aspect of the WPA represents the humanities-based jobs that will be of particular importance. The FP1 subset of the program provided jobs for historians and within arts to musicians, playwrights, authors, painters and more with no restrictions on content or subject matter. If the theory holds that more technical and manufacturing based roles will be automated, then the caring, connecting, coaching, and creating roles will remain to be filled and should be the focus of any jobs program.
This could initiate a new renaissance of artistic flowering across the US. Freed from the drudgery of routine work, millions of Americans have the imperative to work at their artistic ambitions. They would be equipped with the training previously reserved for mechanical work, now applied to create and care-based endeavors. This includes workshops designed to help cultivate critical thinking and creative problem solving paired with learning specific techniques for various art forms such as painting, graphic design, music theory, fiction writing, and research skills. If the new workplace will require less deep learning about specifics and more broad learning so citizens can pivot to new jobs, the interdisciplinary exposure to various arts serves as an appropriate starting point.
In proactively planning jobs program options, we spare ourselves the tumult of massive disruption that automation has the potential to bring about on employment. Assessing the risks now, allows us to build programs that provide proper sustenance for citizens with jobs that benefit our collective community and strengthen the societal fiber of the country. Failing to do so directly hinders all those that lose jobs automation and could have wide-reaching consequences as the Twelve Percent contingent coalesces to a powerful force for political and economic change.