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Clear and Present Danger: Most Americans See Automation as a Future Threat, But It's Here Now

"We can’t agree on solutions…if people are actively being unemployed by growing productivity and the discussion is framed as a future danger to our social fabric instead of a clear and present danger." -Scott Santens (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Scott Santens is a man on a mission. As automation creeps further into the modern workplace, most Americans remain unaware of its implications, particularly just how big a threat automation has already become. The result? Less-than-dynamic discussions on how to mitigate the consequences. Santens, as his work proliferates on the internet and in print, hopes to awaken the masses.

Only one out of every four Americans knows that thanks to technology, we’re producing as a country far more with less. That’s a problem. We can’t make the changes we need to make if people aren’t aware the problem exists, or think the existence of the problem is something to be debated. We can’t agree on solutions…if people are actively being unemployed by growing productivity and the discussion is framed as a future danger to our social fabric instead of a clear and present danger.

Santens illustrates the dilemma using data on oil rig development, charted alongside the waning number of workers needed to run such rigs.

Automation of oil rigs means that one rig can do more with fewer workers. In fact, it’s expected that what once took a crew of 20 will soon take a crew of 5. The application of new technologies to oil drilling means that of the 440,000 jobs lost in the global downturn, as many as 220,000 of those jobs may never come back.

When low unemployment numbers are touted and net job creation highlighted, it is often unacknowledged just how many people have dropped out of the workforce entirely (no longer counted as unemployed) or that low-paying jobs are outpacing middle-wage opportunities.

Most people end up finding new paid work that requires less skill, and thus pays less. The job market is steadily polarizing. As an added bonus, the jobs that are being automated are more productive jobs than most of the jobs being newly created. Cheaper human labor and an increasing number of low productivity jobs together then result in a “paradoxical” deceleration of productivity growth. Long story short, the middle of the labor market is disappearing. That’s the reality, and it’s been happening for decades.

While acknowledging there is no one reason for the shift in workplace opportunities, Santens argues that we are not fully appreciating the impact of automation on various industries and regions in the present, let alone the future.

[T]he story of automation in America is one where mostly liberal metro areas enjoy the benefits while mostly conservative rural areas suffer the consequences. According to a Daily Yonder analysis, 80% of jobs created in 2016 were in the 51 metro areas of a million people or more. These metro areas gained 1.2 million jobs between January 2016 and 2017 — just one year. Meanwhile, rural areas ended up with 90,000 fewer jobs over the same time span.

Santens worries we are denying automation at the same time it is growing more extreme, much as society debated the reality of climate change for decades.

Technological unemployment is real. The only honest debate to be had is over the nature of re-employment, and all evidence points to a shrinking employment-to-population ratio, a growth in low-skill jobs, a transition to alternative work arrangements like temporary and “gig” labor, rising variance in monthly incomes, erosion of benefits, longer terms of unemployment, and what can only be called a pandemic of economic insecurity as survival — instead of the American Dream — increasingly becomes the primary goal of the majority of Americans.

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