Commentary: We have computerized your job
Some thoughts about work. It is under attack from a giant labor pool of maybe 200 million eager and qualified people in Asia and elsewhere, who will do it for less than it costs in the United States.
It also is under attack everywhere from computerization. Stated bluntly: If jobs are not going to Asia, they may be going to the cloud. The service sector, once the saving grace of the post-industrial world of work, is being computerized. People are no longer needed.
The somber back story at the recent National Federation of Retailers annual convention and expo at the Javits Center in New York City, as recorded in The Washington Post, was not about new shopping centers, point-of-sale displays, the minimum wage or offshore call centers for warranties: It was about Amazon. Online retailing is eating up traditional retailing. Retailers have seen the future, and it is bleak.
Two University of Oxford researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, recently calculated that 47 percent of American jobs are under threat from computerization. The only major publication that dwelt on this extraordinary study was The Economist.
Even those spoiled children of society, university professors, are feeling the cold winds from the computer vortex. Online learning is shaking up the quietude in the ivory towers. While universities have to do something to improve the productivity of their academic staffs, this is not the way.
Against this threatening employment sky rages the debate over the minimum wage. But it is a debate that is too narrow; too much about the short-term interests of the employers of minimum-wage earners and too little, if at all, about the endangered workplace. The spurious argument is that any increase in the minimum wage will drive employers to install more computer substitution of workers.
They are hell-bent on that anyway. Look around: Checkout counters are being automated; book manufacture is threatened by e-readers; telephones are answered by other telephones, guided by the unseen hand of computers. Soon even those vilified call-center jobs in India will be under threat. Back home, your doctor will not want as many support staff, as records go on the Web.
The minimum wage should be raised. But it will not stop the rush to substitute humans with computer-driven gadgets. When a machine can be finely tuned to cook and serve hamburgers, a machine will be cooking and serving hamburgers. All those untruths about jobs in fast-food chains being only entry level will fade away.
Meanwhile, go into any fast food outlet and count the people who are middle-aged: They are not there because it is a way in. It is a way of hanging on — especially for African-Americans and Hispanics.
The same is true for hotel room cleaning, chicken-plucking in processing plants, cleaning toilets in commercial buildings, warehouse working and those toiling in the night kitchens of bakeries. Entry into what? Hell?
I once earned the minimum wage in New York City. At the hiring hall, I can tell you, most people there were exiting the job world, not entering it.
You will not get rich driving a nonunion truck, either. Delivery people do it because they have no other skill and almost none of them are candidates for retraining, another shibboleth. Wherever there is menial work that is not unionized, there is economic misery.
Recently, I attended a conference in Europe — where the jobs problem is as bad as here, and possibly more intransigent — and speakers were talking openly about a decline in the standard of living.
We, in the United States, are not immune. Those who have enjoyed middle-class comfort may have to face a devaluation in their quality of life: less and crowded housing, less travel, a smaller, older car or no car, more hourly work and less security, no medical procedures for ailments that some computer may deem elective. Grimmer daily lives that are more 19th century than 21st century.
The debate over the minimum wage ought to be a national discussion of the future of work. A rising tide does not lift all the boats anymore.