The Schumpeter article in the May 35-31, 2013 edition of The Economist deals with white-collar unemployment, a topic of increasing concern. In 2011 Brynjolfsson and McAfee at MIT’s Sloan Business School wrote a book entitled “Race Against the Machine”in which they predicted that many knowledge ("white collar") workers were facing future problems because computers would continue to take over more jobs than they would create. The Economist article references this book and also a study by the McKenzie Global Institute, entitled “Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy”, which takes the more popular line that this will be good for us, because as computers take over more repetitive tasks, workers will be free to become more productive, although it does admit that increased inequality, social exclusion, and backlashes may result, and that present institutions may have trouble keeping up with these advances.
I am with Brynjolfsson and McAfee. Perhaps that is partly because I grew up in a small-farm agricultural environment, went to a large vocational high school, and have worked in oil fields and machine shops, been in the military, and now spend time in California’s Central Valley, which is quite different than Silicon Valley. All of these contain people who don’t seem likely to smoothly transition to becoming knowledge workers dealing with complex problems, and who are now knowledge workers whose jobs contain much that is becoming increasingly automated—the same is true of Silicon Valley, but people don't talk about it as much.
In my experience, the human race not only contains a large number of people who don’t want to be knowledge workers, even if given the opportunity, but an equal, if not larger number of knowledge workers that either already are being replaced by computers, or will be in the future. Many of these folk don’t seem to want to be “educated” to do less routine work, because after all, there is pleasure in being an expert, whether at growing corn or drawing up trusts. Despite the biases or those of us in the education business, many people do not seem to love learning new tricks and do not consider working on intractable problems as captivating.
As examples, of imperiled white collar jobs, much of the contact I have had with attorneys has been over common issues— simple wills and trusts, and a straight forward divorce (California, a no-fault, community property state). Although I liked the attorneys personally, much of this might have been simpler without them. For instance, when the divorce process began, a friend gave me a sheet of paper with the average settlement in marriages of our type in our county as a function of length of marriage, income, number of children, etc. I proposed we use this to my then wife, and she seemed to accept it, but some of her friends cautioned her to get a “tough” lawyer, because surely otherwise, she would be ripped off by me. I talked to a friend who was then Dean of the Stanford Law School, and he suggested that I get an attorney to negotiate with her attorney, except I didn’t need a “tough” one, because this was all routine.
The result was a year of jousting personally and by mail, increasingly bad feelings between me and my then wife, and worry about what the result might be, culminating in a trial. The judge, surprised that a resolution had not been reached, summoned both attorneys to his chambers, and they returned looking a bit chastened and holding the same piece of paper I had been handed by my friend a year earlier, which turned out to be the finding of the court. Jeez. It seems to me that a piece of software could have done the legal work without nearly the trauma, and there is adequate trauma and expense in divorce without adding to it by injecting battling attorneys.
Similarly, I have had quite a bit of unwanted contact with people wanting to charge me for planning my financial future, who I suspect are relying on financial planning software to do so, and people wanting me to pay them to figure out my income tax, undoubtedly using MacinTax or equivalent. So yes, I think we have a problem. As the public becomes more computer literate and software becomes easier to use, we are going to have increasing difficulty in providing satisfying and reasonably paying jobs to lots of white collar workers as well as factory workers, and probably the result will be even louder outrage as the situation affects people who are capable of making more noise.
Perhaps this is underestimated by people at McKenzie and in the media, because they probably got good grades in school, like working on problems that do not have right answers, are good hustlers, and are confident that most white collar workers are like them and can always find satisfying and lucrative jobs as computers continue to encroach upon their territory.