We should be worried about job atomization, not job automation

In the future, machines will do tedious, repetitive work for us, and do more of it than humans ever could, simultaneously increasing economic output and liberating humans everywhere from drudgery. We all know what that means: Disaster! Dystopia! Catastrophe! Everybody panic, the robots are stealing our jobs! We’re dooooooomed!

Does it not seem completely insane, when you take a step back, that we’re actually collectively upset about this prospect? And yet we are. “What should you study to stop robots stealing your job?” asks The Times Higher Education. “AI And Robots Are Coming For Your Job,” warns Entrepreneur. As if it would somehow be far better if this future did not come to pass.

Dwight Eisenhower once said: “If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” I submit that the real problem we face is not that robots will produce more than people while freeing us from mind-numbing, back-breaking toil. I submit that the actual problem is that full-time jobs are assumed as the fundamental economic building blocks of our society, and that we lack the flexibility or imagination to consider, much less move towards, any alternative structure.

Don’t blame the robots. Our brave new economy is already winnowing jobs as we knew them, while the great tsunami of automation still gathers on the horizon. In 1995, 9.3% of the American work force had a so-called “alternative work arrangement” — temporary, gig, or contract work — as their main job. By 2005 that rose slightly to 10.1%. But by 2015 that had skyrocketed to a whopping 15.8%. Indeed, all “net employment growth in the U.S. economy since 2005 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements,” notes Fusion.

The Wall Street Journal concedes that “an expanding share of the workforce has come untethered from stable employment and its attendant benefits and job protections” but points out “this shift away from steady employment has taken place largely in the shadows … most of that growth has happened offline, not through apps such as TaskRabbit and Lyft.” So you can’t blame the servants-as-a-service apps for this…yet.

But the original study notes that the ‘“Online Gig Economy” has been growing very rapidly.’ Does anyone doubt that this, plus rising automation, will do anything other than accelerate the existing trend towards “alternative work arrangements”?

This is not job destruction, but job atomization — the replacement of long-term, full-time work with benefits, and a career path, with occasional, short-term contract gigs without benefits or any escalating career structure. For some people this is great! Including me; my employment history is best described as “checkered,” and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think it’s important not to ignore that many people prefer “alternative work arrangements.”

But, generally speaking, most people want benefits, consistency, predictability, and predefined career paths. Not least because if you do not have any of these things, and you’re not lucky enough to be, say, a successful novelist or a software engineer, then society frowns on you, and your prospects are frequently bleak and deeply uncertain. You become part of the precariat

This is not just a matter of having insecure employment, of being in jobs of limited duration and with minimal labour protection, although all this is widespread. It is being in a status that offers no sense of career, no sense of secure occupational identity and few, if any, entitlements to the state and enterprise benefits that several generations … had come to expect as their due.

Tech inadvertently contributes to job atomization by making it easier. Individual jobs can more easily be partitioned, subdivided, outsourced, and made fungible with the assistance of software and smartphones. Again, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this; it reduces wastage and makes work more efficient. Think of the horde of part-time Uber drivers who pour into the streets when surge pricing ratchets up to 2x or 3x; everybody wins, albeit at a cost. The problem is that the growing precariat is ill-served by an economy built around the assumption that every able-bodied adult should have a full-time job.

So what’s to be done? Well, a decent minimum wage will help people who do have atomized jobs, and discourage a race to the bottom. It will also incentivize automation, but if that destroys jobs en masse faster than it creates them, a minimum wage won’t make much difference.

In the long run, though, the solution is to ensure that a decent portion of the fruits of what should be a golden future — a world in which machines do ever more work for us — are shared with the precariat on an ongoing basis. That way its growing numbers have some semblance of security, hope for the future, and real opportunity for their families. Those should not be reserved only for writers of software, owners of robots, and inheritors of wealth. A universal basic income may seem like a drastic change — but I submit that when technology ushers in what should be a giddily wonderful future, and we react as if it’s a terrifying horror to be feared, a drastic change is exactly what is called for.