Labor force futures
30 June 2017
© Meredeth Turshen
Over the past decade technology has disrupted (and in some cases, dismantled) high-paying jobs that required a college degree: the publishing, music, retail and service industries have all seen automation-related cuts in their workforce. Automation is replacing some jobs of college-educated workers in banks, financial firms, law offices and pharmacies. Sportswriters and business journalists find themselves outsmarted by machine-generated stories: a company called Narrative Science can feed data into a computer and print out a story in minutes.
According to the New York Times (“New collar jobs are giving people with tech skills but no degree a chance at better pay”, June 29, 2017), programs now hire adults without college education for middle level jobs in technology. All of the people interviewed for the Times article were under age 35. What does the future hold for adults aged 45 to 55 looking for a job? (This is one of the groups hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.)
Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025 up to one-quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots, while a study from Oxford University suggests that 35% of existing UK jobs are at risk of automation in the next 20 years.
What does this trend mean for the future of college education? (The Times article says one-third of US adults hold a four-year college degree.) There are two aspects to this question: one, as states withdraw funding from public colleges and the costs of tuition rise, what happens when automation replaces the kind of job that enabled high-school graduates to work their way through college? The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (August 18, 2016, http://www.cbpp.org/research/state-by-state-fact-sheets-higher-education-cuts-jeopardize-students-and-states-economic) says the decline in state funding of higher education has reached over 50% in Arizona and Illinois and over 30% in AL, ID, KY, LA, NH, NM, PA and SC).
The second aspect is, what kinds of work are college graduates going to find in the job market that will enable them to pay off student loans and establish independent lives? One possibility is work that has a direct impact on another human being; but only the current limits of robotics leave this opening. Machines may not yet do jobs that depend on personal interaction, but the Japanese are already experimenting with robots that care for the emotional as well as physical needs of the elderly in nursing homes (November 20, 2016 http://www.roboticstrends.com/article/japan_to_create_more_user_friendly_elderly_care_robots/medical). Work that combines high levels of dexterity with sophisticated decision making are being accomplished by systems like Johnson & Johnson’s Sedasys, already FDA approved, which can automate delivery of low-level anesthesia in colonoscopies at a fraction of the cost of an anesthesiologist. Jobs that require an ability to persuade, negotiate and think creatively may not be way off for the most advanced software; automation is no longer about replacing repetitive work that involved very little real-time decision making.
As a university professor, I worry about my students, many of whom work full-time jobs to pay tuition; they are counting on their degrees to provide passports to professional careers. Automation debases the college degree. Politicians who are voting to cut funding for public education, who disrespect the teaching profession, who ridicule the arts and humanities as irrelevant, are opting for a soul-less mechanical society of people who will be unable to distinguish fascism from freedom.