Why no one has any idea how to solve the problem of employment

Andrew McCafee from the MIT Sloan School of Management recently transported his talk on employment in the age of

Credit: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, via Wikimedia Commons

machines from TEDx to the 2013 TED  conference, where he discusses the impact of increased mechanization on the human workforce.

For those who haven’t seen this talk before, McCafee notes some seemingly ominous trends in technology development and employment–the latter of which has begun to starkly diverge from business profits and spending, apparently because the former is starting to take over.

I haven’t seen the most recent iteration of this talk, but brief summaries are available on the TED website and in a post at arstechnica “Androids are going to take our jobs, and that’s great!”

In the most recent talk, McCafee begins to cover off some of the potential complications of this development. The most obvious is that if machine labour becomes cheaper than human labour, then there’s no need to pay anyone to do anything. This concept has long been promoted as a future to be awaited with bated breath, but it has more recently become relevant to discuss exactly how people and economies will survive, given that they both rely upon human activities. If humans don’t need to work, and most of the labour is accomplished by machines owned by somebody else , then the buying power of most people will be reduced short-circuiting the beneficial cycle of economic activity.

However, McCafee doesn’t appear to offer many new insights. He notes that we need to better educate individuals to work with machines rather than around them, and that to ensure economic activity continues despite unemployment we need a mandatory minimum wage. But neither of these ideas offers any real solution to the inherent problem: we don’t have even the slightest idea how to enact an education system which can keep up with technological progress. If we take youth employment levels as a proxy for this education-to-work transition, then the current state of affairs is dismal.

So really, instead of training people for the future, we may be talking about giving people an education in “what the machines are doing today” while we the rest of us humans live off our food-stamps and welfare payments.

Any better solutions on offer?




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