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Maybe Our Jobless Future Will Wait a Year or Two More

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I would say this might allay our rightful fears of automation creating massive unemployment and the social and racial unrest that follows, which we are having our first taste of in this country right now. But it really doesn’t.

The report, which was released Thursday, breaks jobs down by work tasks — more than 2,000 activities across 800 occupations, from stock clerk to company boss. The institute, the research arm of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, concludes that many tasks can be automated and that most jobs have activities ripe for automation. But the near-term impact, the report says, will be to transform work more than to eliminate jobs.

Globally, the McKinsey researchers calculated that 49 percent of time spent on work activities could be automated with “currently demonstrated technology” either already in the marketplace or being developed in labs. That, the report says, translates into $15.8 trillion in wages and the equivalent of 1.1 billion workers worldwide. But only 5 percent of jobs can be entirely automated.

“This is going to take decades,” said James Manyika, a director of the institute and an author of the report. “How automation affects employment will not be decided simply by what is technically feasible, which is what technologists tend to focus on.”

The report, a product of years of research by the McKinsey group, adds to the growing body of research on automation and jobs.

Conclusions about the relationship between the two vary widely. Examining trends in artificial intelligence, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, researchers at Oxford University, estimated in a widely cited paper published in 2013 that 47 percent of jobs in the United States were at risk from automation.

Maybe it takes decades. Maybe much of it happens in the next ten years. But nearly 50 percent of American jobs being lost? How are we prepared to deal with this? We are not. Not in any way. The only way to recover from that would be universal basic income, federal employment guarantees, or some version of a vastly increased welfare state. Instead, we are moving toward dismantling our already pathetic welfare state, grant huge tax breaks to an elite class who have not had this much power since 1933, and a rise of racial tension. And I see no reason to believe that more automation won’t just exacerbate all of this. I’m sure the unemployment of 3 million truck drivers with the arrival of self-driving vehicles means we will find out sooner rather than later.

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