One need travel no farther than the closest supermarket to find a reminder of why American jobs are quickly and permanently disappearing.
If you check out the check-out area, you will find fewer and fewer employees and more and more automated machines. I choose to stand in line and wait for a person to check me out rather than use one of those machines but I appear to be in the minority.
As more and more sophisticated machines become available, less human labor is needed. Imagine walking into a fast food restaurant in the near future. There will no longer be a line of workers standing behind cash registers to record your order, gather your food and give you change. Instead, customers will use automated devices to place their orders and automated food preparation, guided by a much smaller number of employees, will accomplish the rest. The human touch and more jobs will be lost in the name of progress.
We have seen this before. A handful of farmers now accomplish the same productivity that once required hundreds. Huge cultivators and harvesters cover hundreds of acres each day on mega-farms. America produces enough food to feed our population and millions more throughout the world with less than 2 percent of our population needed to do 100 percent of the work.
This same reduction in the workforce is taking place in many industries as more sophisticated machines and robots come on line. With this employment crisis looming, what do we hear from our political leaders?
Republicans insist that corporate tax reductions will stem the tide and produce more jobs. Since it is already possible for 25 Fortune 500 corporations to evade federal taxes, how will a 35 percent reduction for those companies promote more hiring? Are we to seriously believe that tax cuts for other companies will entice corporate America to somehow compensate for the accelerated rate of automation?
Democrats want to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and invest in solar power. Are we to believe that rebuilding bridges and airports and constructing and installing solar panels will be enough to reverse our precipitous national slide? Perhaps both might help but they cannot compensate for the millions of jobs that will be lost to automation alone.
Of course, neither approach can garner enough support in a gridlocked Congress where ideological purity and political strategy take priority over practical problem-solving. Not only will those on the right and left need to figure out how to cooperate, but it will take academics, industrialists, entrepreneurs, union members, scientists and researchers to work together with the executive and legislative branches of our government to set us on a course of action for our nation. And these plans must be fluid to adapt to changing circumstances.
How do we create jobs to replace those lost to automation? And while we’re at it, how do we reverse the outsourcing that has made it so difficult to find American products in our stores? Some deny the negative implications of automation by suggesting that new employees will be needed to produce new technology. But these new jobs will require highly technical skills and advanced education, relying far more on cognitive ability and less on physical labor.
It will take a complete commitment on the part of our country and workforce to attain the necessary knowledge to compete against other advanced nations around the globe. To this point, we have shown little inclination to make this transition, preferring instead division to vision, ideological purity to common ground and marketing strategies rather than genuine support of academic rigor to build up the reputations of many of our colleges and universities. With more than one million high school drop-outs each year and with the cost of college already well beyond the means of most Americans unless they are willing to begin their adult lives with massive debt, how will we make this critical transition? And it has to be the right degree. Recent college graduates already face the daunting task of finding professional employment. Fifty percent of them are either unemployed or underemployed.
While we spend our days trying to determine if Chris Christie used his power to slow traffic on the George Washington Bridge, or if Hillary Clinton is culpable for the Benghazi attack, we are consumed with political battles that will build a bridge to nowhere, especially the future. We will need to do better than offer platitudes and empty slogans about our nation and our capabilities. It is time to roll up our sleeves and do the hard and serious work of figuring out how a population approaching 400 million will make a living.
And here’s the really tough part. We must do this work together!
Edward Udel is a frequent Eagle contributor.