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

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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:

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