Uber, Lyft, Task Rabbit, you name it, there’s a service that will do all kinds of work for a ridiculously low price at your convenience. It seems like we’re on the cusp of a truly liberating time, where creative busy people can be freed from dealing with the routine and time consuming tasks. As we outsource more and more of our lives, the companies that are arising to meet this demand are disrupting old business models. Without getting into the pros and cons of these companies, there is a more important aspect to the sharing economy and the underlying automation that supports it:
It’s killing living wage jobs.
As I make this statement, I also acknowledge that there is no way to put this genie back in the bottle. Entrepreneurs, engineers and dreamers will move forward regardless of the fabled Jurassic Park warning about whether someone should do something just because they can. Nothing will stop technology. It’s too ingrained in our image of society and ourselves. It’s the basis of much of our entertainment and how we frame the future. Technology will march on.
And before you comment that I’m picking on Uber, I’m not because they are as dead as the taxi drivers they’re replacing. How long is it before autonomous vehicles are shuttling everyone around? How long before no one owns a car but purchases single trips instead? What will that do to auto manufacturers when getting between two points is a commodity?
BMW, the ultimate riding machine?
The unintended consequence is that jobs are vanishing. All kinds of them. Once upon a time, being a programmer of any stripe was a ticket to solid middle class life. Now it’s an okay living for a few, with stiff competition for positions. The few categories that are making a good wage will be eventually supplanted by automation and artificial intelligence.
Airline pilots used to make a nice living. Pilots starting at commuter airlines now make as little as $18/hour and then only when the plane is in the air. With new aircraft that are highly automated and can, in fact, fly themselves, the pilot is now more of an operator. Pilots will go away. We’re being conditioned to accept it with driverless cars and futuristic movies featuring robotic or automated air and space travel.
AirBnB is killing the hospitality industry. Telemedicine will hurt doctor’s offices, most of whom are already on the ropes. Lowe’s is replacing the aisle help, the last refuge of the un- and underemployed, with robots. All of this means that jobs will become fewer and fewer. As I said before, I don’t think this trend is reversible. This leads to one obvious question:
What do we do with all the people?
The current view of capitalism, sort of an extension of Capt. John Smith’s Jamestown admonishment, ‘You don’t work, you don’t eat,’ isn’t going to cut it in a world where there are no jobs for the majority of people. It’s automation, specifically taking humans out of the loop in the production of goods and services, that has allowed wealth to become concentrated by such a small percentage of the population. It is the insane valuations of tech companies, like Facebook, that is giving a small number of people control of capital and resources.
When viewed from this perspective, two observations become immediately obvious:
- Those controlling capital aren’t evil by definition, they are just using an overwhelming advantage to improve a position that is already unassailable by the majority, and,
- Ordinary people, even with extensive training and skills, will become increasingly replaceable and irrelevant.
Is it healthy for society to have an increasing number of people on the sidelines with only a sharing economy to scrape by in? I don’t think so.
Do I have an answer to this?
But this is a discussion that needs to be had. Our economy is based on philosophy from the 1700s. A time when work was accomplished by brute human and animal labor, there was scant technology and smaller populations. The continued fractionalization of jobs, the growth of the ‘gig’ economy and the relentless march of automation and artificial intelligence needs to drive a conversation to define what a new economy means in this context. This is the single biggest issue facing the developed world and very few people even recognize it. To not deal with it is to invite social upheaval unlike anything we have seen before.
How will we deal with everyone? Is there an app for that?