How do we keep workers afloat as more jobs are lost to robots?

Photo via paul.wasneski/Flickr

If you’re thinking of getting a food delivery job, FedEx has some sobering news for you. 

The delivery service is exploring the use of fleets of drones and “bots” to deliver products. According to the Washington Post, the pursuit of economy and speed is leading FedEx to consider such new technologies, presumably at the expense of the regular workforce that does not have high-level skills. 

And FedEx is not alone. UPS, Amazon and Google are thinking along similar lines. 

Darn. There goes another way to earn money. The late American labor leader Walter Reuther foresaw this in the 1950s. An automobile company executive, when showing his company’s new machines, noted that the machinery did not pay union dues. Reuther questioned whether the workers displaced by the machines could afford to purchase new cars. 

Decades later, the prospects for many American workers are not bright at all. Automation is already leaving many people unable to afford decent housing, medical care and education.  

Estimates vary on the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence, but most are pessimistic. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concludes that low-skilled workers are the most likely to suffer adverse consequences. 

Here’s an example: Every week, when I enter a huge federal complex for meetings, I am confronted with not only security guards conducting security checks for weapons but also a person directing visitors to people who check IDs and produce stick-on badges. There are almost always more badge makers than needed. I could imagine a machine that scans your driver’s license, matches the picture with your face on its camera, then automatically prints out an ID badge. But were those jobs automated, those badge-makers would lose their government benefits and likely suffer adverse physical and emotional impacts from unemployment. From that perspective, their salaries seem well worth paying.  

So what are we to do about these low-skilled workers? The OECD report indicates that they will need retraining. But even if advanced industrial countries manage to train future generations to succeed in this new world of increased automation, the reality is that many people today could easily be left behind due to their lack of knowledge, skills and affluence. 

Such people are already visible when one walks down the streets of large American cities. As our own country’s politics become more polarized and unsettled, American citizens and policymakers often yearn for the post-World War II economy when our country was the world’s economic leader in comparison to war-ravaged Europe and Asia. 

But that period is gone. Can America now ensure a stable position for people who are unable to develop the skills needed to thrive in an advanced skill economy? 

Here are some possible ways to help displaced workers through community service subsidized by the government: 

Many elderly people choose to remain in their homes instead of being warehoused in expensive nursing homes. Workers could perform errands for them. Such a strategy could ensure people still can perform meaningful work and have a valued place in the community, even if this means ignoring technological advances. 

Many urban neighborhoods lack access to fresh produce. Why not turn more unused land into community gardens and pay people to maintain them? Not only does it provide work, but it also helps deliver a needed product that could promote healthier food options. Governments could even pay someone to read to the workers to make their task less monotonous: a tactic tried by Cuba during the 19th century. 

Such programs would likely be controversial. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration’s Family Assistance Program proposed a guaranteed annual income of $1,600 for a four-person family. Participants would need to receive job training or take employment. The idea was to assist all families rather than only fatherless households. 

Although the plan was well received at first, politicians soon nicked it to death, with conservatives in Congress and the administration opposing the measure that stood to increase people on public assistance. At the same time, the National Welfare Rights Organization and some liberals argued that the minimum annual income should have been far greater. Although Nixon’s proposal languished, newly-elected Congressional representatives and other politicians are again discussing guaranteed income. 

There are no easy answers to the thorny problem of displaced workers. It remains to be seen whether America’s political leaders can break from the politics of today, which is driven by unreflective partisanship, to start thinking about policies that could truly ensure a better tomorrow for low-skilled workers.  

Stephen Lilienthal is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C. 

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