Building The Jobs Of Tomorrow

In a seemingly innocent comic that recently appeared in the New York Times, a young boy asks his father how many people it would take to run a modern textile factory.
“All you need is one man and a dog,” replied the father. “The man to make sure that all the machines are working properly, and the dog to keep the man from getting too close to the machines!”
The apparently paradoxical answer is instead a statement of the great problem that is facing humanity today, and ever more in the future.
Automated production lines have grown in recent years, with new robots that are able to perform multiple tasks and move so quickly that they must be locked in plastic cages to prevent them from injuring any unfortunate operators that might stray into their path. These robots are able to operate for 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, reaching levels of productivity that no mortal human being could ever hope to achieve.
This progressive automation has spread to all types of manufacturing, from automobiles to electrical appliances, from the riveting of airplane fuselages to the stocking of warehouses.
At the same time, and in increasing quantities, millions of jobs are being eliminated by the technological revolution that has been transforming how we live and work for decades.
Millions of secretaries have lost their jobs, and the open spaces of large corporations where thousands of designers worked with drafting machines are all but gone. Legal practices no longer require the diligent efforts of those who spent entire days analyzing the verdicts of old cases. Administrative functions in both small professional studios and large corporations are now performed automatically by preconfigured software. The list goes on, including the purchase of train or airline tickets and even insurance and banking services.
If everyone stopped to consider their own experiences for a moment, they would realize that their visits to a banking counter or a travel agency desk are getting rarer every year, and as they do, so do the workers manning the posts. In most cases it does not happen by large closings, but through a steady trickle that does not raise the alarm, even though the end result, visible in Italy over the past several years, is the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
One could object by saying that all technological revolutions have had a similar effect, but that would not be true. The advent of the automobile certainly hurt the carriage-building and horse-raising businesses, but it also created a far greater number of jobs: manufacturing, repair, the building of roads and the sectors tied to the production of energy to power them. The same thing happened with the introduction of the railroad, electricity, and the telephone.
The technological revolution certainly gave birth to many new companies, making both hardware and software, but the number of new workers and laborers involved in the industry does not reach one-tenth of the jobs lost to it.
The problem of employment is getting more serious by the day and it certainly cannot be alleviated by slowing the process of technological development. Doing so would mean losing even more jobs.
If producing so many goods and services now requires so few people, the easiest solution would be for everyone to work less, so that everyone can work. Easy to say, and impossible to do. The real world behaves in the exact opposite way: people work more to produce more to gain a bigger share of the market. There is no international authority able to distribute the scant available jobs across all the countries of the world. It is certainly contradictory, but in today’s world, only the labor markets of fast growing nations are spared.
While waiting for the world to wake up and see the mess it has put itself in, a country like Italy needs to not only enact well-known reforms (and a rapid diffusion of automation and digitalization processes), but also to multiply, in the literal sense, its efforts in technical education and research and development. In this era of humanity’s mad growth, one must always be on the cutting edge if he is to survive.
On the other hand there are needs that cannot be met with automation, such as personalized services like craftsmen, tourism, or personal assistance. Given that this clearly requires public resources that are not easy to come by, it is hard to understand why absolute priority has not been given to the development of a technical training and apprenticeship program that can compete for the challenges of the 21st century. Many others would follow the first example. Instead, the issue of labor in Italy is still being confronted as if it were a problem of hourly wages and job mobility, and refusing to admit that our costs are actually lower than our major European competitors (even when taking into account every possible tax burden imaginable) and that mobility is pushed so far that, primarily via temporary contract employment, it becomes the dominant rule in the Italian economy today. With no expectations of changing the world, let us mobilize all of our efforts towards building the jobs of tomorrow, and not limit ourselves to raising this issue only when a large corporation enters an unrecoverable downward spiral.

5 Comments

  1. María Reply

    This analysis is technological advanced but puts at risk the essential questions of human personal developments of forming families and lasting communities. It is the perennial issue of profit over people. “In this era of humanity’s mad growth, one must always be on the cutting edge if he is to survive.” Our human purpose should be mad growth and survival: that is fit for the megalopolis and the tribe, respectively. So what we should aim at as an answer to this connundrum? Capitalism needs a human face, not a robotic face of only technological functioning. It occurs to me that an answer, one answer, to the problem might be not to play along with this high tech model that is being imposed on us from above, but to follow the initiatives of people who care about their small communities and live and love and raise a family and raise crops in them: farms (for organic products, small-to-medium properties), farmers markets, community gardens, artisans, shoemakers, clothes makers, tailors, home schooling the kids with the aid of PT or FT teachers and coaches, local newspapers and magazines, local beauty spas and salons with local beauty products, farm houses turned into inns and bed&breakfast, churches turned into places where the community can gather to discuss issues, local soap makers, local candle makers and honey makers, local shampoos and cosmetic or beauty products, bakers, local dairies with cows or (my favorite) goat milk… in other words learn from our grandparents generation, learn from Third World peoples (I am thinking of my black soap made with African shea butter by Sofi Tucker). The answer might be in leading lives as close as possible to the lives of our GRANDPARENTS.

  2. María Reply

    This analysis is technologically advanced but puts at risk the essential questions of human personal developments of forming families and lasting communities. It is the perennial issue of profit over people. “In this era of humanity’s mad growth, one must always be on the cutting edge if he is to survive.” Our human purpose should NOT be mad growth and survival: those things are fit for the megalopolis and the tribe, respectively. So what we should aim at as an answer to this connundrum? Capitalism needs a human face, not a robotic face of only technological functioning. It occurs to me that an answer, one answer, to the problem might be that we should not play along with this high tech model that is being imposed on us from above, but rather we should follow the initiatives of people who care about their small communities and live and love and raise a family and raise crops in them: farms (for organic products, small-to-medium properties), farmers markets, community gardens, artisans, shoemakers, clothes makers, tailors, home schooling the kids with the aid of PT or FT teachers and coaches, local newspapers and magazines, local beauty spas and salons with local beauty products, farm houses turned into inns and Bed&Breakfast, churches turned into places where the community can gather to discuss issues, local soap makers, local candle makers and honey makers, local shampoos and cosmetic or beauty products, bakers, local dairies with cows or (my favorite) goat milk… yes and even horse farms so that we can learn how to ride and use that mode of transportation too. In other words learn from our grandparents generation and learn from Third World peoples (I am thinking of my black soap made with African shea butter by Sofi Tucker). The answer for us might be in leading lives as close as possible to the lives of our GRANDPARENTS. (THIS is THE REVISED VERSION mispellings edited)

  3. Alberto Reply

    Dear Romano,
    I enjoyed reading your piece and I agree with most of what you said. I would like to add two considerations on the meaning of craftsmanship. I think that we are facing a change in the definition of craftsmanship, as nowadays the artisan and the worker are probably employed in web-related companies. To become competitive at a global level, Italy should invest more on technical and computing education (I don’t know if you ever noticed it, but the websites “made in Italy” are often bad designed copies of American services).
    At the same time, the value of handmade goods is increasing, and Italy could play a strategic role on the global market, thanks to its tradition in industrial design. I believe that including this in primary and secondary education could be a smart move.
    Regards,
    Alberto

  4. Paul Peters Reply

    This is a great article indeed. Pragmatic and visionary.
    High-tech and humanism are not at conflict here, but we do need to adjust our vision to be able to see the multi-faceted reality of multiplicious mutualism. It is just not possible to come up with a “one size fits all” solution, but there are many areas where supportive initiatives can be set up that facilitate the future.
    Whatever it is that is now still a large corporation, most future models expect these to gradually disentangle to being a community of small corporations. Just like Italy’s SME segment.
    The main problem this is currently is that we’ve been working under the wrong assumptions.. the mass-production model. Do note that there are already smart systems that can generate “artificial art”, and although it has the bleek soul of a machine, this is a tool that designers can use. Imagine your 2020 phone.. with a built-in 3D projector and a close-range radar system.. With the available bandwidth it can connect with a central website that is connected with hundreds more that all contain artistic and stylistic information, on interior design, decorating, architecture, on the crafts and arts. While being connected to a design-helpdeks or having one visiting you, the 2020 phone is projecting on top of your living room the changes that are being considered, blending the actual physical objects and the projected image. You can e.g. apply an Art Nouveau or Art Deco filter so that your furniture is being uplifted with custom 3D-printed artifacts that can have a glueless exact fit on nearly molecular finegrained detail.
    You can go to the garage and have your car “steampunked” for an affordable amount of money because the production process is not focussed on mass-production anymore but has reached a stage where it can change behaviour with every other item, production hardware is becoming much more like software. And it will do so in a more cost-effective way.
    Buying iPads to fill up the classrooms does not address any problem, it creates a wrong image as well as severe dependencies. Education must change, but education itself is changing under our feet. Video exchanges allow people to learn at their own pace from the best teachers available. One major issue is that we are entering an era where technological evolution is speeding up. Many domains are reaching a stage that the scientific approach of these technologies is becoming an information science (e.g. like DNA sequences can now be “printed”) and crossfertilizing the methods between the technologies. We are reaching a stage of constant renewal..
    So, although we should indeed pay more attention to technique and mastery above administration and leadership, we should have people learn meta-tools.. the techniques about techniques, such as Alan Kay is demonstrating on http://www.TED.com where kids aged 8 and 9 are helped in discovering Pythagoras theorem.
    Also, we should not forget that “automation” is simply a procedural way of working, like knitting or planting seeds before you can harvest the result. In that sense administrative procedures and bureaucracies are a way of automation as well, and we should not choose for people acting in a machine-like fashion without retaining our humanity. The robotics revolution has just started, we should not fight it nor ignore it.
    More than half my articles are actually re-writes of proto-business plans to address solutions for the coming age. If i can come up with solutions, so can others. As far as Italy goes.. or better, as far as “Italians” go, there isn’t much wrong going on.. but if something needs to change than it is the factoid that “low costs” equal greater value.
    Good luck and take care
    Paul

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