When I began my tenure with The Center for the Future of Work, I stated the importance of the humanistic impact of decisions or strategies in my approach to business problems. That is what led me to write about automation in the trucking industry. What will be the outcome for the millions of displaced drivers when AI-powered vehicles can deliver freight faster and cheaper than they can? Like many others affected by advances in automation, their jobs and lives are on the line. In my search for solutions to the impact of automation on jobs, I read contemporary problem solvers and futurists like Amy Webb, Alisha Bhagat, and Juan Enriquez. All with varying but valid outlooks on the future of work. It was by looking back that I found my greatest inspiration as a futurist.
“Labor has grave problems today of employment, shorter hours, old age security, housing and retraining against the impact of automation. The Congress and the Administration are almost as indifferent to labor’s program as they are toward that of the Negro. Toward both they offer vastly less than adequate remedies for the problems which are a torment to us day after day.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr. United Automobile Workers, District 65 Convention (1962)
Minister. Freedom Fighter. Futurist? Martin Luther King Jr assessed the prevailing issues of the tech industry with great prescience and prudence 57 years in advance. Sadly, little progress has been made toward mitigating the negative impacts of automation in the five decades since his death. Those same problems persist have been amplified in some instances. And the present day problems with labor show us that the future of work may be more tenuous than ever if pressing issues are not addressed.
Gig Economy: Touted by some for the freedom and flexibility it affords to workers, most view the gig economy as an undesirable situation thrust upon workers lacking consistent work opportunities. The odd jobs cobbled together and made convenient via digital platforms still lack the pay rate, consistency, and benefits of the jobs eroded away by automation.
Retirement Insecurity: Simply put, most workers can’t afford to save for their retirement. The pensions previously available for factory workers dried up as the jobs were automated away. So despite the promises of easier life and more leisure made by proponents of machination and automation, people are working longer and harder than ever to accommodate for extended lifespans with the ever rising cost of living.
Housing Inequality: San Fransisco’s school teachers being priced out of the very communities they serve receives the headlines, but even the tech workers behind the innovation that put the city on the map can barely afford to live there. Less than 5% of houses in San Fransisco are affordable to programmers.
Skills Gap: With 12% of jobs today expected to disappear, millions of workers will be left with outdated skills in a quickly evolving labor market. Without adequate education, they are forced into lower wage jobs or left without jobs at all.
An unintended effect of automation is the devaluing of labor that expanded the middle class, while consolidating knowledge and resources to a smaller wealthier class group. This does not have to be our future. Our technological capabilities can be augmented by character and ethics to bolster decision-making that creates value for all social and economic classes.
“We are neither technologically advanced nor socially enlightened if we witness this disaster for tens of thousands without finding a solution. And by a solution, I mean a real and genuine alternative, providing the same living standards which were swept away by a force called progress, but which for some is destruction.”
-United Automobile Workers, 25th Anniversary dinner (1961)
As King alludes to in his 1961 speech to union workers in Detroit, our technological prowess means nothing if it cannot bring about viable alternatives to workers when their jobs have been disrupted. The “move fast and break things” mantra is a decidedly short sighted outlook for tech innovators tasked with bringing us into the future.
Fortunately, there are innovators across a number of fields working to implement large-scale solutions to the side effects of our technological advancements. In forward-thinking Stockton, CA, mayor Michael Tubbs has piloted a universal basic income program for citizens. The premise (also touted by King in his Poor People’s Campaign) is that citizens receive a baseline amount of money as supplemental income, unconditionally. The money can be used to help transition in the case of job loss due to automation, train for new roles, or just ease the burden citizens coping with changes to costs of living. Elsewhere, the Cognizant Foundation has partnered with Per Scholas to provide job training for developer, cyber security, and other jobs of the future. Bringing new skillsets to workers otherwise passed by in the new digital economy. And organizations like the Institute for the Future equip leaders from all walks of life with the tools to glean insight from foresight and shape the future.
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs with reduced incomes as a result of automation while the profits of the employers remain intact, and say: “This is not just.”
-The Three Evils of Society Speech (1967)
In Martin Luther King Jr. we see that it does not take a tech savant or business guru to function as a futurist. He’s the most hopeful of dreamers, but also a realist with a pragmatic view on the hard work it takes to get there. While we all aspire to the levels of leadership and vision he possessed, thankfully our roles as futurists at our own organizations are far less demanding. It takes adaptability. It takes foresight. It takes concern. And that concern steers the ship of technological progress toward more equitable outcomes. Obsession with the next earnings report obscures views of the world beyond the four walls of an office. Concern for the future forces us to make the wisest decisions we have at our disposal today. Concern for those displaced by automation pushes us to be even more creative in how that automation is deployed and how the resulting resources are distributed.
I find the work I do to be more than just a job. It is a calling and an obligation to be a voice of humanity in a sea of algorithms and automation. Business leaders wield significant power, particularly those at the head of tech companies that have permeated every facet of our lives. With that power comes the responsibility to operate in a manner that brings about a more just and equitable society. At least thats what I dream. Carrying on the tradition of the most renowned dreamer.