The Golden Age of the Worker

silicon collar

silicon collar

I am releasing in time for Labor Day weekend, Silicon Collar — an optimistic perspective on humans, machines and jobs. I studied how automation — machine learning, robotics, unmanned autonomous vehicles, white collar bots, exoskeletons etc. –is changing the nature of work in over 50 settings. I looked at work in accounting firms, in banks, on the battlefront, in digital agencies, in garbage collection, in the oil patch, in restaurants, in RD labs, on shop floors, in the warehouse, in wineries and many more.

I spanned the gamut from handsomely compensated basketball players to much more modest garbage collectors. I concluded “we are no longer white, blue or brown collar workers — we are all Silicon Collar workers since technology is reshaping all our workplaces”

I found all kinds of outstanding workers benefiting from technology. There’s UPS drivers aided by its telematics driving on average with less than one accident per million miles. There’s Foxconn employees working next to its bots and precision machines who have delivered billions of Apple and other devices. There’s Amazon data center employees who have delivered over 50 price cuts over the last decade.

Never before have we had so many choice in jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies workers into one of 840 detailed occupations. does an even more granular listing and lists 12,000 separate jobs. And they do not even include all the entrepreneurial, franchising and other gig economy opportunities we have.

Never before have we had a chance to get second, third, later acts in our careers. In the book, I catalog many who keep evolving and thriving. Never before have so many technologies converged to make work safer, smarter and speedier.

And yet, I saw unrelenting gloom and doom about jobless futures. Research from “big brands” — Oxford U, MIT, Gartner (my former employer), WEF and many others — says machines are poised to displace tens and hundreds of millions of jobs. And when so many of the brands agree (and cite each other and increase the decibel level), the person on the street feels the chill.

The problem is much of their research needs to be taken with a grain of salt (and I challenge it in detail in the book). I looked at several sectors — grocery chains, knowledge work, the US Postal Service, automobiles — over the last century and how technology impact affected jobs.

Technologists are used to Moore’s Law and fast-moving computing curves. Societies adopt automation much more slowly. I found “evolution not revolution”. How else to explain why there are still 90,000 bank branches each with several jobs just in the US even after decades of ATMs and Mobile banking? Why do we still have over 600,000 U.S. postal jobs in the face of all kinds of digital communications, when the USPS has automated in the form of kiosks and logistics tech and when the high end/higher margins of the market have been taken over by Fedex and UPS? Why do we still have so many grocery checkout jobs in face of the UPC code/scanner patented 65 years ago and self checkout available for years now?

We get excited about driverless cars. Nearly 50% of cars sold globally last year were stick shift. How many decades before they decide to give up their way of driving? Mazda with its “Zoom Zoom” slogan is counting on humans continuing to love to drive for a long long time.

Seven decades after Sir Alan Turing outlined his test — can a machine would convince a human 70% of the time after five minutes of conversation that it is human, our machines still cannot pass his test. We get excited when a machine beats a chess grandmaster or when Amazon Echo understands us, but we are still not there. Machines can do certain tasks, not complete jobs. And even as they improve, customer adoption cycles continue to be snail-like slow.

In the book, I have identified several “circuit breakers to over-automation”. All the panic about machines becoming our overlords is misplaced. I see machines as colleagues who take over the “3D” tasks — the dull, dirty and dangerous ones and allowing us to move to much more creative roles.

Beyond the fear, politicians have been stoking the anger factor. Anger against the top of society, and anger against the bottom including immigrants. In that anger, we are forgetting that we collectively filed tax returns with the IRS with total Adjusted Gross Income at nearly $ 9 trillion. Which means pre-adjustment, we have a pie of $ 12 trillion to share. That’s just in the US — there are many other healthy job economies around the world. There’s plenty to go around. We need to keep making the pie bigger, not just sulk.

The big aha from my book research : yes, we may not have life time employment, plates for 25 years of service, or pensions that our parents enjoyed (or in many cases suffered through). However, we have ended up with many other positive things in return. More choice in occupations, more second and later acts, and all kinds of technology which is making work safer, smarter and speedier. And we are still to see new jobs emerge as we tackle our Grand Challenges in energy, deep space, healthcare and many new frontiers.

Warren Buffett said in his annual investor letter earlier this year “The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.” I happen to agree. We have nothing to fear but our fear of machines and our anger which is blinding us to a remarkable set of work opportunities.

(Cross-posted @ Deal Architect)

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