There was a lunar eclipse last week. Perhaps you saw it. Here in California, it was at the tender hour of 4 AM. I did not see it.
Lunar eclipses aren’t as showy as their solar counterparts. Last summer’s Great US Solar Eclipse of 2017 underscored that notion, showcasing raw emotion. I personally recall observing a 90% partial solar eclipse in the UK that drove one of my work colleagues to warble opera at the climax. And of course, in ancient times, people thought eclipses portended the end of the world.
So what can an eclipse teach us about the future of work?
Google any Eclipse viewing video of choice on YouTube. You’ll notice something curious in the run-up to the couple minutes of totality, the moment where day literally turns to night. In that run-up, even though the moon may be blocking 98% of the sun, the day seems, still, well... like a day. It’s bright-ish. The sky is still blue. Yes, the texture of the light may seem usual. To be sure, the shadows, if you scrutinize them are odd and crescent-shaped. But if you weren’t aware of it, you might be forgiven for absentmindedly thinking it was still a “day” happening.
That is, right up until the “diamond ring” effect happens, and then: turn out the lights; night has fallen.
- No. 1: DON’T look up – you’ll burn your eyes out
- No. 2: DO stay informed, and know that an eclipse is happening. Day *might* turn into night for a bit. But don’t panic! Because...
- No. 3: DO realize that the path of totality of eclipses isn’t that wide
Here’s where things get interesting. In the context of eclipses, job loss, and automation, Tom Friedman’s book Thank You for Being Late relays a historical anecdote that might be instructive. In a conversation with Harvard economist James Bessen about looms, textile workers, the fear of job loss, they discuss at what point did the myriad “tasks” of weaving got automated enough for the “job” of weaver to be “automated away”.
The answer is that (and the unanticipated resulting abundance that was created) even at 98% automation, it wasn’t enough to eliminate the job.
Far from it.
It turns out, the number of jobs increased due to productivity gains increasing demand. For example, at the outset of the 19th century, many people only had one set of clothes, all man-made. By 1800...
...Most people had multiple sets of clothing, drapes on their windows, rugs on their floors and upholstery on their furniture. That is, as the automation in weaving went up and the price went down, people found so many more uses for cloth, that demand exploded enough to offset the substitution of more machines for labor.
So, it seems from the plush seating in your car to the goofy “Grandma Went To SF, And All I Got Was This Stupid T-Shirt” souvenir, many of the things we wear, sit on, walk on, or – like drapes are to an eclipse – literally block the sun with, stem from the force multiplier of automation.
Much like a day with an eclipse is still “a day”, it wasn’t until the totality of tasks comprising a loom-weaver’s job were automated that the job itself “went dark” (or, in our modern lingo, was “automated away”). What actually happened was tasks were automated, making the weaver’s lives (and presumably their work) less intense, dull, dirty, dangerous, repetitive, etc.
Every job that anybody does today can be broken down into constituent tasks – many of which might benefit from a “partial eclipse” by automation. Case in point: think about all the tasks a lawyer has to do like prepare and draft legal documents (wills, patents, etc.) or gather (increasingly data-derived) evidence during discovery. This is in addition to the “core mission” of advising clients on the law.
This is theme we’ve been writing about as part and parcel of our “21 Jobs of the Future” research. But, if looms and eclipses can teach us anything - that’s not to say that those jobs disappear. To be sure, the benefits of automation won’t come to everyone, and that can be scary. Some jobs will indeed fall in the path of totality – our current estimate in the book What to Do When Machines do Everything is approximately 12%.
Yet, in our “Work Ahead” research, we also found that the majority of work gets better. And, like weaving in the 1800s...
...the majority of executives strongly anticipate productivity improvements, efficiency gains and improved collaboration from applying new technologies to customer experiences and back-office work. In spite of the growing chorus of negativity, leaders across the world — those on the front lines building the future — are surprisingly positive about how our work lives will improve.
Skeptics are right to point out careers driving cars and trucks – let alone toll-takers – are right in the path of totality. That’s fair, and something we’ll be exploring more this year. But – like the path of a solar eclipse – totality may not be as wide as we fear. Whether it’s answering What to Do When Machines do Everything, pondering the dual tandem of “the Robot & I” (versus I, Robot), what will constitute “21 Jobs of the Future”, more articles are looking at the not-so-scary reality of creating new jobs – and abundance – with automation.
The key to everything, like knowing an eclipse isn’t the end of the world, is for business, society, policymakers and individuals to stay informed of the trends and know what’s coming. And how to deal with it.
And looking closely at THESE trends – unlike an eclipse – won’t make your eyeballs fry in their sockets.