For more than 20 years, my father-in-law has sold food to mostly small, independent, family-owned restaurants. He works for one of the world's largest food service companies, and his is the type of job that is increasingly rare: It does not require a college degree, but has afforded him a middle-class life.
My father-in-law is good at his job. He works incredibly hard, he's a friendly guy, and he cares about the customers he serves.
However, that doesn't mean his job is secure. Over the past few years, his company has systematically decreased the number of salespeople it employs and has required those same salespeople to encourage their customers to place orders online.
My father-in-law will probably be retired before his company eliminates salespeople altogether.
However, what will become of his remaining colleagues?
Traditional economic theory says that the gains from technology will create as many or more jobs than the number destroyed, and statistically speaking, people like my father-in-law will be fine. The wonders of the free market and creative destruction will keep middle-aged dislocated salespeople from going hungry. That's what every economics textbook says.
But speaking statistically and speaking realistically are two different things.
Once his company transitions completely to online sales, what are the options for someone like my father-in-law? Be a salesperson somewhere else? Every other company that could potentially hire my father-in-law is also trying to convert customers to online sales.
Get retrained for another job? Aid for retraining is restricted to employees who lose jobs because of trade, not technology. And, as research has shown, retraining is far from a foolproof solution.
Learn to be a coder? Though there isn't any data on this, the market for middle-aged, entry-level coders is probably weak.
We need to begin by acknowledging the fact that we have to rethink the relationship between human beings, work, and the economy.
In other words, the theory of creative destruction works when you're talking about specific companies or industries falling by the wayside because a better alternative has come along. The elimination of the typewriter wasn't an economic disaster, because typewriters gave way to a better alternative that created even more jobs. More people make their living from the production of computers than ever made their living from the production of typewriters.
However, the theory of creative destruction isn't as applicable when one of the things being destroyed is the very idea of human labor.
If economic theories like creative destruction do not provide an answer, maybe politics can.
I know, I lost some of you right there.
"It's the free market," you say. "It will solve its own problems!" That's easy to say when the only way you've ever made a living hasn't disappeared.
Just like there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are very few Ayn Rand followers in an unemployment line. And before you have any condescending ideas about the reading habits of people who end up in unemployment lines, it's worth remembering that bankers and CEOs also tend to misplace their copy of 'Atlas Shrugged' whenever they need to be bailed out.
In fact, in the face of massive job loss, even the world's most powerful Ayn Rand fan, current Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Paul Ryan, can stop caring about what the free market wants.
But both the left and the right offer about as many helpful ideas of how to deal with the changing nature of human labor as an economics textbook does.
A tax cut from the right, or an increase in the minimum wage from the left, does nothing for a middle-aged, middle-class worker whose skill set (and human touch) has been permanently replaced by yet another interaction with a screen. That's one reason why politics has gotten so awful. Neither the left nor the right has any new ideas for new problems, so all they do is turn up the volume on old ideas.
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So, what can be done for someone like my father-in-law and the millions of other people who will be permanently displaced by technology?
We need to begin by acknowledging the fact that we have to rethink the relationship between human beings, work, and the economy. That doesn't mean we need to adopt socialism or communism. What it means is that we need to accept the idea that we need to find a new 'ism' -- that works in a world that none of the thinkers who came up with the old 'isms' could have imagined.
Developing a new 'ism' should also not be viewed as a criticism of capitalism. The parts of the world that operated under some variation of capitalism have fared better, even if the gains weren't evenly distributed. People lived longer, healthier, and more educated lives.
A big reason why all of that happened is because capitalism allows people to pursue their full potential through work. If technology has evolved to the point where there aren't enough avenues for people to do that, the way we organise our society needs to evolve, too.
Letting all we've achieved wither away because we can't think of a new idea would be a tragedy. It would be a little like allowing a family to fall apart just because the kids grew up.
It is possible to create a society that can adapt to the changes ahead. But first we need to recogise that our old ideas aren't a solution, and that a middle-class, middle-aged, technologically displaced worker won't be helped by a tax cut or a higher minimum wage.
Or a few coding lessons.
This blog first appeared here.
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