Despite the fact that the worst of the global recession seems to be over, unemployment is still at a staggeringly high level. There are plenty of explanations for it, the recent comments by Dutch politician Geert Wilders probably being a good example (blame the immigrants!!), but there is one suggestion that seems to be quite absent in the public debate. It is a suggestion that is a little worrying, and that, despite very interesting TED talks on the topic, is for the greatest part being ignored as if it’s nothing to worry about. But is it really so impossible to suggest that companies aren’t hiring people simply because they have much cheaper computers to take care of those jobs?
Of course, it’s an age-old argument that has been proven wrong time and time again. Back in the 19th century, there was already a movement called the Luddites, who feared that all that new technology would replace people and cause huge unemployment. But no such thing happened, because soon enough, new jobs were created. Jobs that often required some form of education, but then again, education was rapidly improving as well, and before long child labour was made illegal and simple manufacturing jobs made way for jobs that required more skills and that gave better wages.
On top of that, Erik Brynjolfsson, one of the men who dubbed the term “New Machine Age”, is right when he says that we should be racing with the machine, rather than against it. We cannot stop our technological improvement, so there is no point in fighting it, and a team consisting of both humans and computers will beat a team of just computers any day. In theory, racing with the machine sounds perfect, as it will create a society that is even more efficient. A society that has even more jobs available for those who have been properly educated.
But what about those without education? Are they not important? As usual, they don’t really take part in the debate, and for that reason, they seem to be forgotten. The people who create the new technology are the ones who do have proper education, so they have nothing to worry about. But if you quit school at the age of 16 and started doing manual labour simply because education wasn’t your thing, then you might be in some very, very big trouble…
The same reason applies to the argument that previous advances went fine as well. When the steam engine was invented, the improved efficiency gave more people the opportunity to go to school, and when electricity was invented, education became available to even more people. The loss of low-skilled jobs was easily compensated by the increased education, because many people hadn’t had any education at all. But now… we’re not starting from scratch. In developed countries, everyone gets education, and usually at least the first 16 years are mandatory, making sure that people with lesser intellectual abilities are pretty much achieving their maximum potential. They can hardly be educated any more than they already are.
And that’s the real problem. We are heading for a situation in which every job requires education, but not everyone is able (nor willing, during puberty) to go to college or to study until the age of 20. Some people might say that’s their own fault, but that’s not how it works. People should not be forced to face life-long unemployment due to a decision they made during puberty, and they certainly shouldn’t face life-long unemployment simply because their talents lie elsewhere than in studying maths.
Perhaps the worst thing is that I cannot see a solution. I always hate it when people complain about an issue, often blaming “society”, without presenting a solution themselves, but in this case, there just doesn’t seem to be one. We cannot stop technological advancement and we cannot force companies to hire low-skilled workers they don’t need. It’s a societal problem that society cannot be blamed for, but it is a societal problem that we should be aware of. We shouldn’t be denying it. We are heading for a future with mass unemployment among those with lesser education, and that needs to be addressed. We need to find a solution, whatever it may be.
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