Jun 4, 2017

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to the first issue of Future of Work. I hope to build an ongoing conversation on the ultra-consequential story of robotics, artificial intelligence, and the reverberations in jobs, city and town life, and economics and politics across globe. I'd love your thoughts. What am I missing? What's ahead of the curve? Let me know at steve@axios.com.

And please ask your friends and colleagues to subscribe free here.

It's fitting to begin with the main question on many people's minds:

Is this time different?

Will inventors, entrepreneurs and plain-Jane shopowners manage to out-match the job-gobbling power of robots and keep creating jobs, as they have in all past disruptive eras? Or are the sweep and speed of automation so potent that much of society will end up on the dole, on drugs, divorced and aimless?

That question — Is this time different? — is the sinew of this newsletter.

  • It's been dubbed the Robot Apocalypse. Among those feeling the anxiety is the SHIFT Commission, a collaboration of Bloomberg and the New America Foundation, which reported in May (page 11) that 58% of its membership said this time is different.
  • Venture capitalist Mark Andreessen blasts back: "The jobs crisis we have in the U.S. is that we don't have enough workers."

Don't forget a blunt fact from the Industrial Age — a six-decade lag between the Luddites in the 1820s and the stabilization of working-class incomes later in the 19th century.

  • So even if this time isn't different, we could be on the front end of a whale of suffering.

Why it matters, from Andrew McAfee, co-author of "The Second Machine Age," speaking in his office at MIT: "A lot of people are making a living in ways that they couldn't before. But this large, stable, prosperous American middle class ... [is] getting hollowed out, and there are some real threats there."

Larry Summers: Where automation hurts

For Americans, it seems like a terrific jobs market, with an astonishingly low, 4.3% unemployment rate. Yet it's the working class that's been hit hard by automation. It's been a primary force hollowing out the middle class for a generation, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers told my colleague Chris Matthews.

  • A sobering statistic: 5% of American men aged 25 to 54 were jobless in 1968. Today, it's 15%. The U.S. trails behind most of Western Europe.
  • Summers sees the trend continuing: "We may have a third of men between the ages of 25 and 54 not working by the end of this half century."

Read the rest here.

The brutal dichotomy in American education

We're looking at new ways to illustrate big stories visually. Here, Axios visuals chief Lazaro Gamio dramatizes the very differing experiences of workers with college degrees, and those lacking a high school diploma, after the 2008-'09 financial crash.

All classes suffered mightily in the crash. But joblessness was longer for those without a high school diploma — and once they found work, they struggled to recover their prior income.

For the live version of the visual, go here.

We've always been afraid of technology

Our fear of technology has been around since we began to invent, reports my colleague Alexi McCammond. It's not known for sure, but the Bronze Age wheel, too, must have troubled some people.

For a look at the centuries of worry, McCammond consulted the Pessimists Archive. Among the inventions she found: Furby, the radio and electronic lights. Read the rest here.

You may have missed ...

Headlines from our Future of Work stream:

1 fun thing: A death knell for cadavers

When medical students are learning how to operate on human limbs, they traditionally practice on the real thing — hands, feet, arms and legs severed from bodies at the morgue. But by the time they have operated a few times on a single limb, inserting and pulling it out of the freezer each time, it can get pretty messy.

Enter Kenji Shimada, a professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. When I visited Shimada, among the things he showed me was an invention intended to help out those future orthopedic surgeons: 3D-printed artificial limbs cast into ballistic gelatin.

Usually such gel is used to mimic muscle and test the impact of bullet wounds. But Shimada fashioned it around his 3D hands and feet, which he said allows medical students to work on a bone repeatedly.

Shimada deadpanned: There are no complaints from those made jobless.

Bryan Walsh

Don't forget to check out the Axios Future of Work stream during the week.