Replaced By Robots

We all hope to get our version of “The Deal”, and The Deal is this:

If you do what’s expected, you’ll get what you expect.

A job. Economic security. The ability to support a family, if you choose to have one.

I took my Deal when I was 21. I barely graduated high school, no one on either side of my family had ever earned a four-year degree, and nearly everyone I knew—certainly my parents and my aunts and uncles—always struggled to make ends meet.

And I didn’t want to live like my family.

I didn’t want to eat government cheese. I didn’t want to coordinate my kids’ back to school shopping with the Kmart Blue Light Special.  I didn’t want Nikes to seem like an exotic luxury. I didn’t want to buy my cars from dealerships with “Buy Here, Pay Here” written in soap on the windows of car-colored 6-year-old Toyota Camrys.

(An ex-boss once explained to me what a car-colored car was. It’s a shade of purple you would only see on a late model Toyota Camry. It does not appear in nature, and no one would ever wear clothes in one of those shades. It’s a car-color.)

So I tried to get my Deal.

I went to college. I worked hard. I didn’t buy a $500,000 home when our household income was less than $50,000. And I assumed - and continue to assume - if I adhere to the terms of a subconsciously imagined deal, my family and I will be okay.

In other words, because I’ve done what’s expected, I’ll get what I’m expecting.

Except a lot of people are learning that it doesn't always work like that.

Losing the Deal

You don’t have to look very far to find stories about blue-collar workers who found out the hard way that their version of “The Deal” was disappearing, and neither political party had much interest in preserving it. In fact, job losses in the industrial United States over the last few decades have left many blue-collar workers facing a pretty horrific condition:

Permanent income loss.

It’s not just the manufacturing sector. You also don’t have to look very hard to find stories about the future of trucking, where automation will greatly reduce the number of human beings needed in an industry larger than 9 combined states.

And it’s not just men and women who wear hard hats and sit behind the wheel of a truck.

In September Wal-Mart announced the elimination of 7,000 back-office and accounting jobs, noting in their statement the positions became expendable due largely to advances in automation and software. According to the MIT Technology Review, surgeons, lawyers, positions across the financial services sector, and educators are all on the list of professions likely to be dramatically impacted by automation.

Of course, writing articles about the potential impact of automation is nothing new. I’ve written a few here on LinkedIn and Inc., enough to know the response is as routine as the articles themselves:

Creative destruction will save us.

New and Different Deals

If you’re not familiar with the concept of creative destruction, Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter used it in 1942 to describe how innovation destroys old jobs and creates new ones. Creative destruction has since become conventional wisdom, and is a theory that can help ease fears in the face of widespread automation.  

Creative destruction tells us the displaced trucker who’s spent his or her life in the driver’s seat of an 18-wheeler will become a “trucker” who operates an 18-wheeler using a touchscreen.

Creative destruction says there will always be enough jobs (and Deals) for everyone, regardless of technological change.

Creative destruction might provide some comfort, but here are a few things to consider:

  1. Automation is explicitly designed to reduce the number of employees a company needs. It doesn’t make much sense to replace one lower-skilled worker with a higher-skilled, higher-paid, worker.
  2. If conventional wisdom and theory could accurately predict the future, the United Kingdom wouldn’t be leaving the Europe Union, and we wouldn’t be hearing the words “President-Elect Trump.”
  3. It's easy to preach the gospel of creative destruction when you believe your job cannot be automated (and according to a recent survey, a majority of people believe most jobs will be automated--but not theirs). However, I have multiple relatives in the trucking industry. Their response to losing the only profession they've ever known will not be, "Well, if a dead Austrian economist says so." If the response to widespread dislocation is to preach a theory, the reaction to the preaching may make us look back with nostalgia on the chaos of 2016.
  4. Schumpeter believed creative destruction was inevitable, but we often forget the economist also argued in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy that creative destruction could undermine and possibly destroy capitalism.

All of this doesn’t mean we are headed toward a bleak future. The world doesn’t end if the old Deals are no longer available.

But the inevitability of automation does mean we need to create Deals that fit with the reality of an economy that would have been impossible for Joseph Schumpeter to imagine. It means we need to be proactive, not reactive. It means we need to take action, rather than preach theories.

And it means we need to think of innovation not just in terms of gadgets and software, but also in terms of social technologies that could help ensure basic standards of living.

In other words, it might be time to start imagining different Deals.

Dustin McKissen is the founder of McKissen + Company, and was recently named one of LinkedIn's "Top Voices on Management and Corporate Culture". He is also the author of "The Brand New Entrepreneur" on Inc.com, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

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