Why Are We All (Including Our Leaders) Ignoring the Big Problem?

wi6995/ Shutterstock

A billion useless people. No, maybe that’s generous. Billions, thanks to robots and artificial intelligence. The “rise of the useless class.” The end of work. And with it, the end of pay. These are the things that the world’s biggest thinkers are thinking about right now.

It’s frightening how little everyone else is thinking about it.

I recently wrote a piece for CNBC.com about “micro-generation” gaps. It describes the Tower of Babel at work that results from the rapid changes in communications apps and software. Keeping up with the latest SnapChat, Venmo and Bumble is driving us insane. Forget about 60-somethings struggling to talk with 20-somethings. Today, 25-year-olds can’t communicate with 22-year-olds. It’s a problem. But nothing like THE problem.

Reporting that story, I came across some research I found pretty stunning.

Heads in the sand

Two-thirds of Americans tell researchers (in this case, Pew) that they believe robots will be doing most of the work within 50 years. But they also think only other people are going to be “useless” in the future. More than 80 percent say their own jobs will exist, in current form, 50 years from now.

That’s frightening head-in-the-sand stuff right there.

Also in the Pew research: Only 13 percent are concerned that they won’t be able to keep up with the technical skills needed to stay competitive in their jobs, and only 11 percent are concerned that their employer might use machines or computer programs to replace human workers.

Finally, only 6 percent said their current job will “definitely not” exist. The right answer is closer to 100 percent.

I called Aaron Smith, who conducted Pew’s research, to ask him if workers were concerned about keeping up with the latest apps, like Venmo or Slack. No, was the answer. They have other things on their minds.

“People are much more worried about their employer managing their company better — both near-term and long-term — than they are growing automation,” said Smith.

We know that many Americans have trouble getting to the end of the month, so thoughts about the future are probably far from their minds. That’s terribly short-sighted and the quickest route to ending up with a billion useless people on the planet.

We need leaders to do some of this long-term planning for us, but that’s not happening either. Smith expressed diplomatically something I have said angrily in the past:

“There are certainly a lot of really smart people out there who would say this is the No. 1 challenge facing the future of our economy, as ‘AI’ and robotics become advanced. And there are a lot of very smart people who would say our politics and economics and our education system are not treating this with the severity or intensity it needs to be treated with.”

College access won’t solve the problem

It’s great that the student loan crisis is getting the attention it finally deserves because Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “free college” idea has stirred so much discussion. I’m all for educating people without saddling them with decades of debt, but I’m afraid it might be too late for college. Investment guru Bill Gross wrote in a recent research note about this issue that the old economics notions about simply retraining workers won’t work in the 21st century. In the past, workers had time — perhaps a generation or two — to adjust to technological revolutions. Horse-carriage coachmen had decades to learn a new skill. That’s not going to happen this time.

And college?

“Four years of college for everyone might better prepare them to be a contestant on ‘Jeopardy,’ but I doubt it’ll create more growth,” he said. And as researcher Yuval Noah Harari, who recently warned of the “useless billions,” points out, most of what people learn in college is useless by the time they are 40 or 50.

So, what to do? Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be doctors. Or pilots. Or … just about anything.

I had a remarkable conversation recently at a conference I attended. I was at a table of parent-aged adults, and I brought up how sad it was that landing-on-the-Hudson hero pilot Sully Sullenberger regularly tells people he wouldn’t want his own children to become a pilot today. Once an honored and lucrative profession, it’s now an oppressive, high-pressure job that is no longer a sure route to a good life. And I asked those there: What do you dream for your children?

Lawyer? Doctor? Pilot? Professor? Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

A software engineer, perhaps. Perhaps. But coding is nowhere near as robot-proof a profession as folks would lead you to believe.

And that’s my point. Most of us do work that can be automated. (Journalists, certainly.) The answer to that Pew survey above should have been close to 100 percent. Virtually none of our jobs will exist in the future as they do today. Everyone has a stake in dealing with this problem. The time to talk about it is now. The time to fix it is now. The time to empathize with our fellow humans who have lost their professions is now, because we will all be there soon.

I promise you, no one is going to build a wall to keep out the robots. College, walls … these are yesterday’s solutions. The future is coming, and it’s coming fast. Get your heads out of the sand.

What do you think? Will your job exist in its current form in 50 years? 10 years? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page.

More from Bob Sullivan:

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
8 Ways to Slash Your Internet Bill
8 Ways to Slash Your Internet Bill

No matter what price you are paying for internet service, taking these simple steps can lower it.

The 5 States With the Worst Health Care for Retirees
The 5 States With the Worst Health Care for Retirees

All of these states are located in the same region of the nation.

5 States Where Drivers Pay the Most for Car Insurance
5 States Where Drivers Pay the Most for Car Insurance

Auto insurance will cost you more than three times as much in one state compared with another. Here’s how to lower your rates no matter where you live.

7 Secret Perks of Individual Retirement Accounts
7 Secret Perks of Individual Retirement Accounts

IRAs come with bells and whistles that many other accounts lack — including some perks you may not know exist.

This Is the Best Age to Buy Long-Term Care Insurance
This Is the Best Age to Buy Long-Term Care Insurance

If you wait too long to apply for coverage, you could be denied. So, when’s the sweet spot to apply?

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
9 Mistakes Everyone Makes When Shopping on Amazon
9 Mistakes Everyone Makes When Shopping on Amazon

Are you losing money due to any of these missteps?

Can a Divorced Widow Claim Her First Husband’s Social Security Benefits?
Can a Divorced Widow Claim Her First Husband’s Social Security Benefits?

The rules are complicated when it comes to eligibility for survivors benefits.

Can a Twice-Divorced Woman Claim Social Security Survivors Benefits?
Can a Twice-Divorced Woman Claim Social Security Survivors Benefits?

Understanding survivors benefits rules is the key to getting the most from your benefit.

These Are the 10 Worst Cars for Depreciation
These Are the 10 Worst Cars for Depreciation

Two types of vehicles are especially likely to see steep plunges in value.

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

10 Things I Always Buy at Trader Joe’s
10 Things I Always Buy at Trader Joe’s

From snacks to sweets to side dishes, stock your cart with these time-tested favorites on your next TJ’s run.

13 Amazon Purchases That We Are Loving Right Now
13 Amazon Purchases That We Are Loving Right Now

These practical products make everyday life a little easier.

5 Ways Social Security Will Change in 2021
5 Ways Social Security Will Change in 2021

These adjustments will affect both workers and retirees in the new year.

11 ‘Disposable’ Items You Should Be Reusing
8 Things You Should Buy at Restaurant Supply Stores
8 Things You Should Buy at Restaurant Supply Stores

You don’t have to be a chef or a restaurant owner to shop here.

Stop Buying These 19 Things Online
Stop Buying These 19 Things Online

The internet has changed how we shop. But for some things, you’re still better off buying the old-fashioned way.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree
19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree

There are easy high-paying majors available in the U.S. — and no bachelor’s degree is required. We’re here to help you find easy degrees that pay well.

Cut These 11 Expenses Now If You Hope to Retire Early
Cut These 11 Expenses Now If You Hope to Retire Early

Like the idea of financial independence? Part of the FIRE equation is cutting costs.

7 Tips for Building an Emergency Food Supply
7 Tips for Building an Emergency Food Supply

A pandemic or natural disaster could leave you reliant on your existing emergency food supply. Is your pantry well-prepared for emergencies? Knowing what to stock up on for emergencies can be a difficult task and we’re here to help.

20 Things That Are Actually Worth Stockpiling
20 Things That Are Actually Worth Stockpiling

You don’t need a year’s supply of toilet paper to survive an outbreak, but consider stocking up on these items.

4 Tax Credits That Will Be More Generous in 2021
4 Tax Credits That Will Be More Generous in 2021

If you are eligible for these tax breaks, they will slash your federal income tax bill — dollar for dollar.

5 Secrets of Seniors Who Keep Their Minds ‘Young’
5 Secrets of Seniors Who Keep Their Minds ‘Young’

Here is why some seniors’ brains work as well as those of people who are decades younger.

These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020
These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020

Medicare Advantage customers themselves rate these plans highest.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.