The robots are coming! The robots are coming!

BoomerCafé often runs stories about the changes we see in our world as baby boomers. Today, communications specialist Larry Checco of Silver Spring, Maryland, sees a change that affects all of us. What he sees is, The Robots are Coming! The Robots are Coming!

My younger son is a teacher. My oldest is a Marine Corps reservist who works in sales and marketing. Any time I’m willing to listen, the Marine son is ready to tell me how we baby boomers got the best of America’s apple pie and that he and his generation are being left to scramble for the crumbs.

“Jobs were plentiful and better paid when you were my age,” he says. “There was something called the middle-class. My generation probably won’t even have Social Security or Medicare when we retire — if we ever can retire.”

I used to argue that every generation has its challenges to overcome, including our boomer generation, but as technology inexorably marches on, that argument is getting harder to make and still offer hope.

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Futurist Alvin Toffler wrote in his book “Future Shock” that many people would be incapable of keeping up emotionally with the rapid pace of change that he predicted was yet to come.

That was in 1970, forty-five years ago, when I was somewhere around my sons’ ages. It was just a year after a man had landed on the moon, but before the democratization of technology, meaning, before most of us had ever heard of desktop computers, laptops, or cell phones; tablets were pills we took for a headache.

Well, the future has arrived — and with a vengeance. Keeping up with it emotionally may be the least of our problems.

The financial hardships many are feeling today — regardless of which generation they’re in — may look like gentle ripples on the shore compared to the tsunami of change that robotics and artificial intelligence are whipping up.

There was a time when capitalism — and capitalists — could not exist without labor, sometimes needing vast amounts of it. But that era is fast fading.

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Companies have discovered that robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence can replace humans and improve accuracy, productivity, and the efficiency of their operations.

Amazon, for example, currently employs about 50,000 people in its warehouses. But the company already uses 15,000 robots and is experimenting with how its robots can “autonomously grab items from a shelf and place them in a tub,” which some fear may reverse those numbers — namely, 50,000 robots versus 15,000 employees.

The concern is that technology will not only eliminate jobs, but also reduce incomes, and create a permanent underclass of unemployable people, with all that that entails for society.

Experts say that everyone from telemarketers to financial planners have a 99-percent chance of having their jobs computerized. Some predict that by the year 2030, 10- to 12-million truck drivers, for example, might lose their jobs to self-driving vehicles. As boomers, we are only on the leading edge of this trend. Our children, and their children, will take the full impact.

True, there’s never been a better time to be a worker with special skills or the right education. Those kinds of jobs will continue to pay well.

But there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities — and replacing them — at an extraordinary rate.

All this reminds me of the old Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song, “Teach Your Children Well.” I can only hope that my wife and I have done so. So far, so good.

Larry Checco
© 2015

4 Comments

  1. Excellent article. It sums up very well the problem. And yes, there are some truly scary predictions floating around, like the one mentioned here: “by the year 2030, 10- to 12-million truck drivers, for example, might lose their jobs to self-driving vehicles.” The conclusion appears inevitable, it looks very much like an underclass of unemployable people being created.

    The standard answer from economists has always been: technology destroys jobs but also creates new ones, the problem is going from the destruction to the construction stage, there’s a gap. And that’s when it hurts, some people fall in that gap and can’t be saved. But in the end, like in all good fairy tales, more jobs are created than are lost.

    That nice argument was of course very true for all the past accelerations of progress that we have experienced, moving from the horse carriage to the train, from the train to the car – but moving from the car to the driverless car looks like a very different proposition. Will the computer age finally do away with millions of repetitive, uninspiring – yes, boring! – jobs? And with that, will it do away with the middle class?

    Looks like it. But it’s up to the middle class to wake up and defend itself. It really is a political question as much as an economic one.

    It is time to think of another model of economics, not the traditional(old-fashioned) capitalistic model. It has served us well, but its time has come. It’s not the best way to distribute wealth in this brave new digital age. We have to do things differently. Leisure is not just a luxury for the ultra-rich, leisure has to be spread around. And leisure should not be equated with “dolce farniente”, i.e. sweet “doing-nothing”, no matter how sweet. To enjoy leisure, one has to work at it. Get an advanced education, fine-tune one’s sensibilities and tastes.

    A society that aims to give “happiness” to all its members needs to seriously think about how to make leisure time available to everyone without a corresponding shortfall in earned income. As I said, that means changing the capitalistic model, put value where for now none is placed. Here is not the space to spell everything out, but it’s obvious that in this new model of an advanced leisure society, many new jobs will be created and an equation will be made between the money earned working and the time spent on leisure activities…

  2. Hi Larry – an excellent article full of truth – humans are gradually being replaced by computers and robots in industry as they have been for a number of years and this trend will continue in search of efficiency and reduced costs. The way forward for humans is the way of the entrepreneur. We need to be resourceful and develop lifestyle businesses for the digital revolution. I don’t see this as a problem, this is a motivator for us to become creative and shape our future to how we want it. Technology will continue to develop and we as humans need to stay with it and develop too.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this article, but it elicited another question for me. Is parenting today more difficult than it was for the baby boomers? I have three reasons why I think parenting is becoming more difficult. If interested, try listening to the 12/10/15 video on drbillcourter.com with the title, “Is Parenting Becoming More Difficult?” We all need to help today’s millennial parents. After all, they are our children!

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