Those of us who have been reading up on employment trends, and especially the decline of wage growth as expressed as a percentage of technology-driven productivity gains since the mid 1970’s, take it for granted that formerly reliable family-wage jobs are disappearing and an ever increasing rate.
In other words, you kids are SCREWED!
The rest of you have been living healthy, balanced lives centered around the enjoyment of loved ones, sunsets and spiritual epiphanies regarding the oneness of all things.
But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. We’re here to talk about THE BACKLASH.
(AKA ‘Backlash Syndrome’, more commonly known in academic circles as ‘BS’)
In today’s click-bait media landscape, backlash is the inevitable outcome of a meme reaching critical mass. When an idea brings out the contrarians, you know it’s hit the big time. I guess you could say it is a badge of honor – even a form of validation. The Backlash du jour concerns the coming job-pocalypse forecast in such popular books as The Second Machine Age, Rise of the Robots and many others.
Case in point: This New York Times headline from earlier this year: The End of Lawyers? Not So Fast. I came across it while researching a post I was writing about the bleak outlook for jobs in the legal profession. But this NYT article painted a rather rosy picture (as the headline implies) suggesting that statistics simply don’t support all of the fear mongering. In fact, AI will free people up to do more interesting jobs! And there will be plenty of them!
This seemed to run counter to what the angry mobs of chronically un or under-employed people seem to be shouting, as they warm their fingerless-gloved hands over burn barrels fueled by their student loan paperwork. So I decided to dig into a study titled, ‘Four Fundamentals of Workplace Automation’ prepared by analysts at McKinsey&Co. which the NYT article’s author cited to support the happy headline. Since the NYT can cherry pick parts of the study to support their thesis, I decided, hey, so can I!
For example, the NYT pulls this out of the study:
The McKinsey study found that less than 5 percent of jobs can be completely automated based on existing technologies within the next three to five years.
But I pulled THIS out of the SAME STUDY!
The bottom line is that 45 percent of work activities could be automated using already demonstrated technology. If the technologies that process and “understand” natural language were to reach the median level of human performance, an additional 13 percent of work activities in the US economy could be automated.
And this from the study’s conclusion:
Clearly, organizations and governments will need new ways of mitigating the human costs, including job losses and economic inequality, associated with the dislocation that takes place as companies separate activities that can be automated from the individuals who currently perform them.
The fact of the matter is that a great deal of the jobs in the legal profession which have traditionally been a low rung on the ladder to success for newly minted law-school grads have already succumbed to AI and machine learning. These are traditionally reliable jobs which in the past offered the promise of upward mobility. These jobs typically centered around research and discovery document classification. However now-a-days, that fancy law degree might only land you a barista gig, and as a result admissions to law schools are the lowest they’ve been in decades. According to The Wall Street Journal, 43 percent of all 2013 law school graduates did not have long-term full-time legal jobs nine months after graduation. In 2012, the average law graduate’s debt was $140,000, 59 percent higher than eight years earlier. And the numbers are getting worse.
A big part at becoming informed citizens during this time of accelerating change is to be discerning consumers of ‘news’. It’s always good to ask oneself who owns the source of your information, and what motives they may have to tell you what they are telling you. In the case of The Backlash Syndrome, it is often the irresistible click-bait of an article that either scares the crap out of you, or offers reassurance about something you’re already freaked out about.
In other words, it pays to fine tune your BS detector.