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A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond

A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond

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work bookCollege bookstores can be a great source for books that haven’t yet made their way into the popular distribution. On my last trip before the shelter-in-place orders were issued, I visited the University of Pennsylvania’s bookstore and saw copies of Daniel Susskind’s latest book, “A World Without Work.”

In 2016, I reviewed “The Future of the Professions,” a book co-authored by Susskind with his father, Richard Susskind. Where the first book focused on specific professions and how technology was transforming their role in the workplace, Daniel Susskind’s latest focuses on how technology is transforming work in general and he writes it from his perspective as an economist at Oxford University.

Susskind opens with a premise that machines will not do everything in the future, but that they will do more than anyone now envisions. Technological success will lead to technological unemployment.

Over the last 300+ years, advances in technology have always eliminated certain jobs. At the same time, machines complemented people at other tasks resulting in usually a net gain in jobs. The idea that the effect of technology on work depends on the interaction of a harmful substituting force and a helpful complementing force is not new. But understanding it, according to Susskind, helps explain why past anxieties about technological unemployment were frequently misplaced.

Notable for our current higher education environment is Susskind’s observation that for most of the past half of the twentieth century, the workers who appeared to benefit the most from technological change were those who had more years of formal schooling behind them. In 2008, the wage of an average college graduate in the U.S. was almost double that of the average high school graduate.

Beginning in the 1980s, technology seemed to benefit the job opportunities for low-skilled workers and high-skilled workers, and at the same time, hollowed out the opportunities for middle-class workers. Traditional economic models did not explain these phenomena, so a group of economists collaborated for an explanation.

Step one was to focus on particular tasks that people do, rather than general job titles. Step two was to look at the tasks themselves and establish whether or not the task was routine. The thinking of these economists was that technology could replace routine jobs, but would struggle with non-routine jobs and those jobs where opportunities existed for people.

Since the Autor Levy Murnane (ALM) hypothesis was developed in 2003, the ongoing advances in artificial intelligence (AI) caused it to break down. Many of the tasks identified as non-routine in 2003 can now be automated.

Driving a truck, writing legal briefs, and making medical diagnosis were three tasks thought to be non-automatable, but the intervening years have shown that not to be the case. Economists thought that humans would have to teach computers how to do certain tasks and the non-routine would be hard for humans to teach. However, machines can now learn to task themselves with no human intervention.

Reviewing the economic theories about technological unemployment, Susskind writes that frictions in the labor market prevent workers from moving freely into whatever jobs might be available. He references males employed in the manufacturing sector who were unable to move into the services sector as manufacturing jobs were eliminated through advances in robotics.

There are three reasons for the friction: a mismatch of skills, a mismatch of identity, and a mismatch of place. In the U.S., the mismatch of place is bifurcated. By the time college graduates reach 30, half of them have moved out of their birth state, but only 17% of high school dropouts leave.

The balance between technology’s harmful substituting force and its beneficial complementing force is likely to skew more toward the harmful substituting force as machines continue to take on more tasks. As that task encroachment occurs, Susskind posits that it becomes more likely that changes in demand for goods will not turn out to boost demand for the work of people, but rather for more machines to accomplish the tasks.

He backs up this theory by stating that in 2010, new industries created in the 21st century accounted for just .5 percent of all U.S. employment. When will this occur? Susskind is not sure, but contends that if computers continue to advance over the next 80 years at the same rate as the last 80 years, our systems and machines will be a trillion times more powerful in 2100 than they are today. There will be far less work for people sometime between now and then.

Susskind writes that a world with less work will be a deeply divided one. The phenomena of technological unemployment and inequality are very closely related.

Over the past few decades, the part of the economic pie that goes to workers has shrunk and the part that goes to those who own traditional capital has grown. In the United States, the richest .1 percent holds the same amount of wealth as the poorest 90 percent combined. How we respond to this inequity comprises the final chapters of the book.

The idea that education can “indefinitely” solve the employment problems created by technological progress is a big mistake, according to Susskind. In the past, more education has meant more advanced education. In the future, more education is the right answer, but we need to change our approach and solve for three criteria: what we teach, how we teach, and when we teach.

For what we teach, Susskind writes that we need to explore the material in ways that draw on human faculties that sit out of the reach of machines. Many tasks that cannot yet be automated fall in the category of jobs like social worker, paramedic, and schoolteacher.

For how we teach, Susskind suggests that we need to change our centuries-old practices and use technologies like adaptive learning. For when we teach, the preoperative idea is to teach more often than today. People will have to move in and out of education throughout their lives.

With the future shrinkage in available jobs due to technology, education will have to continually create more demand to make up for the shortfall. Of course, continually creating demand requires that everyone is able to be retrained, and there is data indicating that is not always the case.

The last three chapters of “A World Without Work” are about the role of the state in redistributing income through taxation, the influence of very large technology companies on our economic lives today and controlling their political power tomorrow, and the meaning and purpose of life—balancing work and leisure. While each chapter is an important concept in how to resolve the inequity exacerbated by lost jobs, the issues that each chapter represents are more unresolved than the situation that Susskind presents so well throughout the book.

“A World Without Work” presents solid evidence that technology will impact mankind more than many of us will be prepared. More frequent and relevant education throughout one’s lifetime will be important for those who are able to learn new skills in order to continue to be employed.

The norms of traditional college degrees will likely fall by the wayside as the return on investment for an education will be much more closely linked to job opportunities. Some of this is already happening on a small scale. Successful scaling will depend on an entity’s ability to educate or reskill and place the learner in their new role.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.

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