“There are more net jobs in the world today than ever before, after hundreds of years of technological innovation and hundreds of years of people predicting the death of work. The logic on this topic is crystal clear. Because of that, the contrary view is necessarily religious in nature, and, as we all know, there’s no point in arguing about religion.”

There are more net jobs in the world today than ever before Tweet This Quote

These are the words of tech mogul Marc Andreessen, in an e-mail exchange with me on the effect of advancing technologies on employment. Andreessen steadfastly believes that the same exponential curve that is enabling creation of an era of abundance will create new jobs faster and more broadly than before, and calls my assertions that we are heading into a jobless future a luddite fallacy.

I wish he were right, but he isn’t. And it isn’t a religious debate; it’s a matter of public policy and preparedness. With the technology advances that are presently on the horizon, not only low-skilled jobs are at risk; so are the jobs of knowledge workers. Too much is happening too fast. It will shake up entire industries and eliminate professions. Some new jobs will surely be created, but they will be few. And we won’t be able to retrain the people who lose their jobs, because, as I said to Andreessen, you can train an Andreessen to drive a cab, but you can’t retrain a laid-off cab driver to become an Andreessen. The jobs that will be created will require very specialized skills and higher levels of education — which most people don’t have.

With the technology advances that are presently on the horizon, not only low-skilled jobs are at risk, so are the jobs of knowledge workers. Tweet This Quote

I am optimistic about the future and know that technology will provide society with many benefits. I also realize that millions will face permanent unemployment. I worry that if we keep brushing this issue under the rug, social upheaval will result. We must make the transition easier by providing for those worst affected. In the short term, we will create many new jobs in the United States to build robots and factories and program new computer systems. But the employment boom won’t last long.

Within 10 years, we will see Uber laying off most of its drivers as it switches to self-driving cars; manufacturers will start replacing workers with robots; fast-food restaurants will install fully automated food-preparation systems; artificial intelligence–based systems will start doing the jobs of most office workers in accounting, finance and administration. The same will go for professionals such as paralegals, pharmacists, and customer-support representatives. All of this will occur simultaneously, and the pace will accelerate in the late 2020s.

I worry that if we keep brushing this issue under the rug, social upheaval will result. Tweet This Quote

Andreessen agrees that there will be disruption and that professions will disappear because of the productivity improvements that technology will enable. The libertarian book that he wanted me to read claims that, although the unemployment of skilled workers through mechanization is a tragedy for those involved, it is an inevitable consequence of societal progress and makes the economic pie bigger — and is therefore a good thing.

Another technologist whom I hold in high regard, Vinod Khosla, worries as I do about the effect of increasing income disparity. Discussing the revolution in progress in machine-learning technology, which is enabling computers to analyze information and make judgments better than human beings can, Khosla wrote:

While the future is promising and this technology revolution may result in dramatically increasing productivity and abundance, the process of getting there raises all sorts of questions about the changing nature of work and the likely increase in income disparity. With less need for human labor and judgment, labor will be devalued relative to capital and even more so relative to ideas and machine learning technology. In an era of abundance and increasing income disparity, we may need a version of capitalism that is focused on more than just efficient production and also places greater prioritization on the less desirable side effects of capitalism.

So the real debate is about the new version of capitalism: do we design this or pretend that everything will be okay as the tech elite get richer and people who lose their jobs get poorer?

With less need for human labor and judgment, labor will be devalued relative to capital and even more so relative to ideas and machine learning technology. Tweet This Quote

The impact of advancing technologies will be different in every country. China will be the biggest global loser because of the rapid disappearance of its manufacturing jobs. It has not created a safety net, and income disparity is already too great, so we can expect greater turmoil there.

But developing economies will be big winners.

In his office in Mexico City last month, I had a lengthy discussion about the global impact with Mexican industrialist Carlos Slim Domit. He had a surprisingly good understanding of the advances in technologies such as computing, sensors, networks, robotics, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing. He spoke of the uplift of society in the developing world through broader access to information, education, health care, and entertainment — and the need to share and spread the prosperity that advancing technologies will create. He predicted the emergence of tens of millions of new service jobs in Mexico through meeting the Mexican people’s basic needs and enabling them to spend time on leisure and learning. He sees tremendous opportunities to build infrastructure where there is none, and to improve the lives of billions of people who presently spend their lives trying to earn enough on which to subsist.

Countries such as India and Peru and all of Africa will see the same benefits — for at least two or three decades, until the infrastructure has been built and necessities of the populations have been met.

Then there will not be enough work even there to employ the masses.

The concept of a universal basic income is also gaining popularity worldwide as it becomes increasingly apparent that declining costs and the elimination of bureaucracies, make it possible for governments to provide citizens with income enough for the basic necessities. Tweet This Quote

Slim’s solution to this is to institute a three-day workweek so that everyone can find employment and earn the money necessary for leisure and entertainment. This is not a bad idea. In the future we are heading into, the cost of basic necessities, energy, and even luxury goods such as electronics will fall low enough to seem almost free — just as cell-phone minutes and information cost practically nothing now. It is a matter of sharing the few jobs that will exist in an equitable way.

The concept of a universal basic income is also gaining popularity worldwide as it becomes increasingly apparent that declining costs and the elimination of bureaucracies, make it possible for governments to provide citizens with income enough for the basic necessities. The idea is to give everyone a stipend covering living costs and to get government out of the business of selecting what social benefits people should have. The advantage of this approach is that workers gain the freedom to decide how much to work and under what conditions. Enabling individual initiative in the work that people pursue, in fields ranging from philosophy and the arts to pure science and invention, will result in their enrichment of their cultures in ways we can’t foresee.

In his book Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford says that a basic income should be tied to measures such as gaining education, performing community service, or participating in environmental projects. This might motivate people to work instead of spending all of their time in holographic worlds. But it would get government back into the business of unnecessarily deciding what is right for individuals.

We need to be prepared and to develop a new version of capitalism that benefits all. Tweet This Quote

Another opportunity is for governments to direct labor to rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure of cities. With sensors, new nanomaterials and composites, and 3D-printing technologies, we could be building massive smart cities that use energy more efficiently and provide a better quality of life for their inhabitants. Think of the futuristic cities we saw in science-fiction movies. Infrastructure projects such as these would require all sorts of skills, which laid-off workers can be retrained for.

Another potential solution, the brainchild of Internet pioneer Vint Cerf and entrepreneur David Nordfors, is to develop A.I. software that matches jobs to the skills, talent, passions, experiences, and values of each individual on the planet. They say that there is an almost infinite amount of work that needs to be done and that only a fraction of all human capacity is being used today. People hate their jobs, consequently losing tremendous amounts of productivity. With jobs tailored to a person’s passions, we could create a work environment in which people give 100 percent of their capacity to work and the economy expands because more is being done. This is indeed a utopian dream; but it’s something we can and should aspire to.

The problems and possibilities are endless in the future we are headed into. We need to be prepared and to develop a new version of capitalism that benefits all.

About the author

Vivek Wadhwa

Vivek Wadhwa

Vivek is a Fellow at Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; VP of Innovation and Research at Singularity University; and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University. He is author of "The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent."

  • Chuck Triplett

    Enjoyed this article very much and while I tend to agree with Marc Andreessen about the prospects of new and innovative jobs, there are two important points that the author highlights. The first is the need to
    educate citizens to be able to participate successfully in the future economy. In the United States, systemic disinvestment in education over decades has resulted in overcrowded classrooms throughout the P-20
    system and overstressed educators who are forced to deliver homogenized curriculum with too few resources to cater to the various learning styles of their students. A long-term reinvestment in education is essential to creating the workforce of the future but even more criticalto creating an engaged and educated citizenry. Many of our students fail to graduate from high school and too few matriculate into post secondary.

    The second important point that the author notes is about infrastructure investment. While it’s absolutely true that developing nations will benefit from these initial investments, the U.S.serves as an example of how infrastructure investments must be sustained. Deferred maintenance throughout the U.S. is a consistent
    problem as demonstrated by our stressed bridges, roads, schools, energy and communications systems. Development and maintenance of these infrastructure investments create a perpetual demand for workers.

    A final thought regarding future workers – many people in developed countries and cities across the globe are choosing to reengage in an artisan economy. “Local” movements supporting handcrafted food, beverage and goods may provide insights into the future economy as people choose to reject mass production in favor of small-scale goods and services.

  • Jerry

    One major fallacy of this argument is that the governments, who would theoretically support a 3-day workweek and perhaps provide the subsistence income for the working class (99%), would not receive the same income from taxes (income, sales, property, etc) under a model like this where they were so responsible for the livelihoods (which will include leisure and entertainment activities in the author’s model) of their citizens. This would leave corporation responsible for providing the tax-revenue to governments to keep them afloat. We know already that powerful corporations are at least as powerful as governments, and maybe more so. This, in my humble opinion, would only increase and logically lead, as government spending power and overall clout declines, to the corporations that control all of the technology to provide for the citizens, which seems unlikely.

    Rather I think the solution will lie in some extraordinary visionary leaders of industry and social/ political philosophers who will help to bring forth a radical restructuring of society much the same way that the founding fathers/ mothers of the USA did and the way that Henry Ford and other early 19th- century business giants did. What that will look like, I don’t know. The transformation may take a generation or more, and will likely cause hardship for some, but I am optimistic that there is enough ingenuity and faith in humanity to make this tech revolution work.

  • Tchassanty Ouro-Gbeleou

    What is the fate of the developing countries in these technological
    advances then? One of the positive impacts of multinational enterprises in the
    developing world is job creation. Multinationals such as Nike, Adidas, etc.,
    although unjustly making large profits by exploiting cheap labor, did create
    jobs that provide income to many people in these countries who would otherwise
    have no income. Today with machines/robots replacing humans on the job, it is
    becoming impossible to close the inequality gap between the haves and have not!
    For instance, it required many workers to produce one pair of Nike shoes, but
    now with the 3D printer, very soon, it requires only one worker, the one who
    operates the printer to make the same pair of shoes.

    If we link many countries’ civil unrest with the joblessness of people in
    those countries, its is clear we will need to get ready for ever increasing
    violence in the world…

  • danphaw

    I find it interesting that the article claims Communist China hasn’t prepared a “safety net” for the jobs lost due to their recent embrace of capitalism. TO me the problem is people in tech thinking they are economists. Capitalism is simply market forces. If more jobs are created due to the “disruption” caused by a tech explosion won’t people with those jobs still need and want products and services? This argument could have been made at the beginning of the industrial revolution. People without the ability to start a factory or own a newspaper would be left behind, ect… As we know that didn’t happen.

    This kind of article also reminds me of the Malthusian type arguments that one day millions of people would starve due to food shortages. As we know advances in refrigeration and agriculture solved those problems. In fact the only examples of mass starvation were manufactured by people trying to create “equality,” oddly enough. There is no “new” kind of capitalism. Capitalism is the same no matter where or when. It is people serving their fellow man by creating a product or service they want or need. The inequality comes as a result of people trying to make the outcomes equal instead of making the opportunity equal. Why do we have to assume that there will be driverless cars ect…? The problem I have with techies is, they don’t watch market forces they try to dictate them. Is there a demand for driverless cars that I am missing?

  • danphaw

    In a documentary I watched Bill Clinton said very much the same thing would happen due to globalization. He said there was no option to shed globalization the only real question was if it would create terrorism of all sorts.

  • danphaw

    I think you are on to something here Jerry? In my humble opinion the issue is caused by an erosion of what is public business and what is private business. When the government stops being the referee and decides to join in the game to sway the outcome. Corporations hold great power because a system has been created where they have joined forces with government to make laws ensuring their success. In a true free market such a thing could not exist. I am under no delusion that it is ever possible to have such a system but corruption is where society has to draw the line.

    Your comment reminds me of the example of Greece. The government promised an economy based on leisure and not productivity. Then when there bills come due to pay for this life of leisure, what they call austerity, no one wants to be held accountable for the unproductive nature of the economy, No one wants to give up their pensions, early retirements, or generous vacations.

  • danphaw

    Excellent comment Chuck. Infrastructure is not the reason for a growing economy, it’s the result. No one I am aware of is going to college to learn how to build bridges. We have created a bubble in education based on a tech driven economy. We have systems in place that were supposed to be used to rebuild our infrastructure but those have been used to sustain other programs. I agree that the solution lies in individuals becoming their own source of income. I read a quote somewhere that said our parents had one job, we will have 5 jobs, and our kids will have 5 jobs at one time.