For years we’ve heard that the U.S. is losing jobs to countries that get things done quicker and cheaper. President-elect Trump had this issue at the forefront of his campaign. As he said in an early Republican debate,
“I will bring jobs back from China. I will bring jobs back from Japan. I will bring jobs back from Mexico. I’m going to bring jobs back and I’ll start bringing them back very fast.”
But in trying to bring back the jobs we’ve outsourced, we miss a simpler reason as to why these jobs have disappeared: They are out of date, and obsolete for humans.
Trump has promised manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs that simply do not exist anymore.
Technology is coming for, or has already taken, as many jobs as have been sent abroad. The blue-collar, benefits-laden work that allowed for a down payment on a nice, two-story home in an American suburb and the means to start a family have now been handed over to R2D2.
Those damn robots are taking our jobs!
Recall the 1964 Twilight Zone episode The Brain Center at Whipple’s in which robots replace all workers at a factory, including, in the end, the boss himself. This is what we are dealing with now. We have millions of Americans scrambling because Happy Days-era jobs don’t exist anymore, and too many people are unwilling or unable to retrain, stuck with a skill set better utilized by robots.
As Rice University professor of computational engineering Moche Vardi told Factor earlier this year,
“US factories are not disappearing; they simply aren’t employing human workers. Job losses due to automation and robotics are often overlooked in discussions about the unexpected rise of outside political candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders.”
This is a main reason why many people are so frustrated. Why the campaign promises made by Donald Trump are so appealing. It is much easier to point a figure at a tangible culprit, like China, instead of figuring out out how to join the future.
Truck driving, for example, is the most common job in the country. It has been one of the last beacons of hope for middle class workers without a college degree to earn a substantial living. But that is changing, and fast. There are some 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S., and Tesla’s self-driving trucks will hit the road as early as 2017. And this doesn’t take into account the jobs at gas stations, truck stops, diners, and motels along the way that will be lost as well when human truck drivers cease to frequent them.
In 20 years, basic labor jobs will be obsolete and virtually human-free.
As published by Inverse,
the solution to the problem of disappearing jobs will be basic income for all (provided by the government). Humans will be paid simply for being, well, human, because there won’t be any employers left willing to pay them for anything else.
This subject has remained untouched and unaddressed by the president-elect.
Gone to the future
“The more visionary the idea, the more people it leaves behind.” – Cosmopolis, 2003
There is a large portion of the country (presumably within the portion of those who voted for Donald Trump) who aren’t as excited about the future of science and technology. People who aren’t blown away by Elon Musk’s advancements in solar, who don’t care about quantum computing, and who sure as hell don’t need to 3D-print anything.
People want to normalize the future. They don’t want to be left behind. But that is a choice. We need to focus on retraining; on adapting to progress and to a future that will arrive with or without the president-elect. The economic platform should revolve around jobs that usher in this inevitable future instead of fighting against it.
The idea that we should be focusing our time and energy and tax dollars on bringing back assembly lines and oil fields and metalwork simply doesn’t make sense. Clean energy, tech, education, healthcare; there are job sectors that are growing, and providing sustainable, well-paying jobs. These are the jobs that we need to talk about.
(Jobs that aren’t disappearing: The 21 best jobs of the future)
The U.S. may indeed be falling behind, but not for the reasons that Trump, or Hillary Clinton, has said.
Trump can keep blaming China. He can put up as many trade barriers as he likes. This may raise the price of goods and increase high-skill, high-wage employment (e.g. A.I. developers, robot designers), but it won’t do anything for workers with only a high school education (i.e. coal miners or production line workers). Bringing back mass-employment production lines in the modern age is akin to bringing back whale oil as a power source. The days of Moby Dick are long gone; no one is risking life and limb to spear a whale.
There is no stopping progress. We have known this since the 19th Century, when the Luddites first railed against technology. Since 1964 when The Twilight Zone showed us those poor, doomed factory workers. Innovation will keep marching forward. The world will keep marching forward. The focus must shift away from pandering to economic sectors that no longer provide jobs for humans and tilt toward the future. That’s how you make the United States great again.