Cold winds are blowing on America’s workers, and no matter what Washington does, it’s going to get worse than anything we’ve ever seen.
Every day, workers feel the squeeze, and it isn’t simply the problems Donald Trump has given voice to — real things like illegal immigration, outsourcing overseas and unwise trade agreements — it’s things business innovators have touted, like the relentless march of technology.
In 1960, the American auto industry employed directly or indirectly approximately a sixth of working-age Americans; today, that number is closer to 1.7 million workers out of 156 million working-age Americans. These modern workers manufacture a car every 55 seconds — it simply takes less people to accomplish more. It’s easier to buy a car these days, but rarer to make a living on them, and the trend toward automation is going to continue.
By 2030, McKinsey estimates that up to 15 percent of cars still made in the United States will be automated, and every year, Google and Tesla and other industry leaders pour millions into their progress. Just a few short years after massively disrupting the taxicab industry, Uber is experimenting with self-driving technology in Pittsburgh. For the millions of people without college degrees who drive cabs, trucks and busses for a living, the implication is clear.
This past year, McDonald’s announced plans to install automatic ordering machines in every one of its 14,000 American restaurants. They won’t be the last.
These stories are true but are, of course, anecdotal, and all took place within a changing world that, many are quick to point out, grows richer and more comfortable each day. There’s no doubt that the average American lives better than the richest king once did, but for the low-skilled worker, the future holds very little.
Critics of a gloomy outlook cite the long-gone blacksmith or carriage-makers, showing that society has handled mass disruption before, that technology will create new opportunities for work, that this pessimism is downright panicked and we’re as prosperous as we’ve ever been. But with every year bringing a new advance to make us have to work less in either our field or our personal lives, it isn’t far-fetched to see a future where there is not enough work to go around and that the wealth some of us have accumulated will look more like a target to envious people than a reward for hard work.
In as soon as 20 years, when we don’t need backs in warehouses, when eyes aren’t a part of the assembly line, when minds aren’t needed to transport goods, when no mouth is required to order food, when no hands are necessary to move earth, what work will our economy have for the 70 percent of Americans who don’t have a college degree, or the millions more whose degree won’t help? Our technological advancement unlocks new doors every day, but can anyone see a real need for unskilled hands in this certain future?
Libertarians call the disruptive nature of advancement “creative destruction,” but we’re not talking about an industry, we’re talking about a country, and one where despite our apparent successes, two-thirds of the citizens don’t think they can handle an unexpected $500 bill. Technological advancement and the marketplace don’t owe these people any mind, but their government does.
When the topic comes up in my kitchen on Capitol Hill, as it often does, it’s largely theoretical, because the reality is no matter what comes next, I’m almost certainly going to be fine and so are the people I’m speaking to. But a lot of other people won’t. Our brothers won’t be. Our children might not be.
Traveling through the Rust Belt for four months changed economist Stephen Moore’s mind on his most basic assumptions. “It turned me more into a populist,” he told The Hill, expressing anger over D.C. ignoring the concerns of working-class people. “Having spent the last three or four months on the campaign trail, it opens your eyes to the everyday anxieties and financial stress people are facing,” the longtime supply-side champion said. “Just as Reagan converted the GOP into a conservative party, Trump has converted the GOP into a populist working-class party.”
And outside thinking might be necessary. A massive shortage in low-skilled opportunities isn’t a problem easily answered within orthodox libertarian or conservative economic solutions. Right-thinking economists have spent centuries wondering how free men work best, but what happens as low-skilled work simply dries up is new territory. Already, most poor and middle-class people haven’t seen real rises in wages in decades, and this is set to get worse. We’ve seen what hopelessness and generations of poverty have resulted in in our cities these past few years: A countrywide class of young and old unable to support themselves without assistance and less able to move upward and onward will pose a threat to our very society.
Some of the people leading the innovation, like Elon Musk, see the threat, and have publicly mused on ways to address it before it threatens the social fabric. No answer is immediately apparent, but if conservatives want to avoid a future where a majority of the people idle in welfare, smarter people than I need to start brainstorming.
As factory life spread in the United States, Nathaniel Hawthorne observed that, “Families are always rising and falling in America.” Some of us might do just fine in this strange future, but look around: A lot of us won’t. From where I sit, winter is most certainly coming. Pray I’m wrong.