"Those jobs are goin', boys, and they ain't comin' back"

Saw this sad note this morning:

Next week, I am moving with a wing, a prayer, and a month’s paycheck to find a job in Buffalo. I’ve moved a lot, New Orleans, San Francisco, San Diego, Richmond, Philadelphia, but never without a job lined up ahead of time. I’m 41 and one month away from being homeless with a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences.

I lost everything to Katrina 5 years ago, started to get secure in Philly, and the economy is now kicking my ass.

And then this article:

Guo and an estimated million others like him represent an unprecedented and troublesome development in China: a fast-growing white-collar underclass. Since the ’90s, Chinese universities have doubled their admissions, far outpacing the job market for college grads. This year China’s universities and tech institutes churned out roughly 6.3 million graduates. Many grew up in impoverished rural towns and villages and attended second- or third-tier schools in the provinces, trusting that studying hard would bring them better lives than their parents had. But when they move on and apply for jobs in Beijing or Shanghai or any of China’s other booming metropolises, they get a nasty shock.

They may be smart and energetic, but some are starting to ask if the promise of a better life was a lie. They’re known as “ants,” for their willingness to work, their dirt-poor living conditions, and the seeming futility of their efforts. “These ants have high ambitions but virtually no practical skills,” says Prof. Zhou Xiaozheng, a leading sociologist at the People’s University of China.

…[W]hite-collar pay is shrinking, thanks to a massive glut of university graduates. And salary cuts aren’t their only complaint. Official Chinese labor statistics (which tend to be unrealistically rosy) claim that 87 percent of college grads find work of some sort sooner or later. In other words, even the government admits that at least one in eight is permanently unemployed. And those who get jobs don’t always find work in their chosen fields. Nearly a third of Beijing’s ants are employed in “sales in private business.” For tech engineers, that often means peddling low-end electronic gear for the city’s computer wholesalers.

As computerization and robotics enable fewer and fewer people to produce more and more output, demand for medium-skilled workers is drying up around the world. The best educated, most experienced, most creative workers will always find work, but automation is eliminating hundreds of millions of medium-skill jobs. What happened long ago to textile mill workers and a few decades ago to bank tellers (when ATMs took over) is now happening to lawyers, mechanics, programmers, accountants, call center workers, etc. Why pay a lawyer thousands of dollars to handle routine legal documents when you can buy them from LegalZoom.com (or one of its many competitors) and file them yourself? Why pay an accountant when you can do-it-yourself with QuickBooks? Why hire an expensive experienced mechanic when you can hire a cheap one and let the automated system tell him how to service each car?

Your job may have been outsourced to China, but the worker doing “your” job is making 10% of what you made. Even so, the job may soon be handed over to a robot. Rapid advances in computer voice recognition/automation alone could eliminate tens of millions of more jobs. And one sector little impacted by technology to date — education — is poised for a revolution that could improve results even as it eliminates many jobs.

We’re all “ants” now.

Real ants take care of one another, but the U.S. still worships at the altar of market competition, even after massive taxpayer bailouts of bankrupt mega-banks and a profit-crazed corporation’s destruction of the Gulf of Mexico.

As labor markets continue drying up, will we consider “survival of the fittest” a just, moral outcome? Or will society insist on redistributing a share of the immense wealth that centuries of steady technological advances have enabled a relative few people to accumulate by replacing human labor with machines?

Posted by James on Thursday, June 24, 2010