Apr 6, 2019 - Technology

Deep Dive: For millennials, now come the robots

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Millennials face one of the toughest economic landscapes of any generation since World War II: they are working for relatively low pay and, for college graduates, they're saddled with an average of some $30,000 in student debt.

But now, they are about to confront yet another challenge — robots. Millennials will be the first generation to absorb the full impact of the new age of automation, which, if history is a teacher, will wipe out jobs faster than the economy can create new ones.

What's happening: Millennials came of age during the Great Recession. Since then, three-quarters of all new U.S. jobs have paid less than a middle-class income, according to Labor Department data.

  • These minimum- or lower-wage jobs are the ones that millennials — ages 23-38, born between 1981 and 1996, and the largest generation in the country — are often taking.
  • Unlike prior generations, there may not be much of a ladder up from there. Part of that is economics — tech and globalization have hollowed out middle-skill, middle-wage jobs. And part of it is the continued aftermath of the financial crash.

There has been political fallout: On top of all this, millennials are on the hook for the public spending excesses of the baby boomers. In an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll last year, 51% of millennials said they resent boomers for their financial circumstances, tension likely to play out in the politics of the coming decades.

  • The bottom line: Prior technological revolutions have led to decades-long interregnums before real wages returned to prior levels. And those thrown out of work often had trouble finding new jobs. The new automation is tech on steroids. As time goes on, it will strike hard at blue-collar millennials in cities and more rural parts of the country alike.
  • Look for even greater disaffection and raw unhappiness from left-behind Americans.

Take John Russell, a 27-year-old farmer from Galena, Ohio, who tells Axios that, until now, millennials in his area had three relatively secure jobs — at Walmart, a Walmart warehouse or driving a semi-truck.

  • But, Russell says, "warehouses and semi-truck jobs — the most security you can have in the Ohio Valley — are at risk of automation. What's going to happen when they go away? The companies will get a big boost in profit, but the people will have to figure out what to do."
  • Russell himself, who has a degree in agricultural science from Cornell, works a 21-acre farm bought by his parents. So does a brother who is an arborist.
  • In a chat in Storm Lake, Iowa, where he was attending a political event, Russell told me he earns most of his money contracting out to grind up tree stumps.

This was a recurring theme in conversations in rural Iowa: finding work is a matter of providence, often involving your family.

  • David Rosmann, a 37-year-old farmer from Harlan, said that between college and returning to his parents' 700-acre organic farm in 2014, he has been a line cook, a rural organizer, a lumberyard worker, and a graduate student.
  • As time goes on, "guys my age aren't going to be able to farm unless they are an heir or someone will take them under their wing," Rosmann said. "My brother and I realize how fortunate we were we had jobs waiting for us."

The bottom line: The future of work for millennials looks no rosier than it has been the last decade — and may be worse. "Innovation creates more jobs than it destroys, but not always in the same place or with the same people," former Congressman John Delaney, a Democratic candidate for president, told me in Storm Lake. The government needs to step in and bridge the gap, he said.

  • Rosmann said the bias should be against the robots. "Is your bottom line more important than the people around you who need work?"

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