My last two posts have focused on social class, the death of the American upper class and the collapse of the middle class. I think the “class” approach to defining society is in decline and will eventually be abandoned. This post and my next one will explain why.
As I have written before, speaking of “social classes” was useful to some extent in the past based on the assumption that most members, if not all, of a “class” shared so much in common that it was reasonable to lump them together. As I also have noted, this is not the case for more and more people in more and more nations today than ever before. You just cannot toss everyone in an income range into a “class” and assume anything is true of all or even most of them. This is especially the case with the “middle class”.
I feel silly stating what should be obvious, but I have met too many intelligent, competent, innovative people of middle income and too many upper income people who demonstrate less of all those qualities to accept any sense of “superiority” of the upper class. If all you care about is money, fine. Then I guess the upper class is cool, but five decades of working all over the world has not demonstrated that to me at all. They are not cool. They just have more money.
More importantly, the difference in educational level and the ability to do something productive with it between those called upper class and those called middle class these days is minimal, when it exists at all. For the sake of this post, let me change the terminology. Instead of talking about “class” based on income level, I choose to think in terms of “channel”.
It may be a channel called education, management, information technology, home economics, finance, sports, or a hundred other titles, depending on how you want to break it down. Within each channel, we can find many different income levels. What makes each part of a channel is not what they earn, but what they do. That unpaid teenage hacker sitting on one side of the room may be every bit as bright or brighter than that high-paid Microsoft engineer sitting on the other side. That educator from Thailand may be every bit as competent or more so than that educator from Germany, despite earning only a fifth of her income. What they have in common with each other is the path each has chosen that, when seen together, form a commonality that cannot be expressed in dollars, yen or any other currency, a channel based on what they do, not what they earn.
When income level (call it class, if you must) is allowed to separate us from each other rather than our self-chosen profession (channel), we all suffer. But that happens, too much, too often. If we stop and think about it, we understand it is just an old habit that needs to be broken.
However, keep in mind that if you do not earn a lot of income, this does not mean that moving from a class to a channel makes your life easier. It is now based on what you do and excelling at what you do can a lot more difficult than getting paid more money than someone else.
My purpose in this post is not to discuss “channels”. That will come in future posts. I introduce the term in the hopes that it will help all of us begin to break out of the income/class straitjacket that can keep us from moving forward successfully into a very rapidly changing future.
Instead, my purpose is to briefly discuss two important trends among those that will crush the “social class” system.
Automation and Artificial intelligence
If you are unaware of the rapidly approaching revolution represented by automation, you are behind, way behind. If you are not one of the 4 million+ people who have already seen it, taking the time to view the YouTube video, Humans Need Not Apply, is definitely worth it. It is a well-designed, fast-moving video that provides a lot of information as painlessly as possible. The “threat” of automation is clearly described. Tens of millions of jobs could disappear and not only for another one of those old classes, the “working class”, but for everyone, including “professionals” and those seen as “creative”. Forgive me for all the quotation marks, but I learned a very long time ago that we all need to work, be professional, and be creative if we are to be successful and feel fulfilled by our work. To say each is the responsibility of one or another “class” based on income is ridiculous.
Automation has been of great value to humans for a very long time. It has freed us to be more productive, made our lives easier, opened new doors, and expanded our frontiers. Good grief, it has given us a weekend to use as we like. At various times, it has caused severe disruption. It is again disrupting and not in the near future, but now and continuing into the future at an ever-increasing pace.
But this time, automation’s impact will be far greater due to one new factor – AI or artificial intelligence (also called MI or machine intelligence by some). We were able to adapt to “dumb machines” because nearly all required our presence to be useful. Now we have “smart machines” that need minimal human support to do massive amounts of highly demanding work on a 24/7 basis, less maintenance. Some can even learn without our help. That is truly disruptive. That will cost jobs.
There is another perspective that is important in judging the effects of all this on our lives. We are not going to wake up one morning to find that AI-enhanced automation has eliminated tens of millions of jobs. This is not an event, it is a process and it will unfold over time. Initially, this may help to mitigate some of the problem.
As a simple example, many nations with relatively high labor costs have seen their businesses pack up and move to nations with relatively low labor costs for the simple reason that they cannot compete globally when labor costs are such a large portion of their total costs, but not their global competitors’ total costs.
But let’s say that driverless trucks are first put to use in high-income nations that can afford them, the very nations that have been losing jobs in the search for lower labor costs. The machines “labor costs” are pretty much the same wherever they are used. Today, it may be cheaper to make products in a low-labor-cost nation and transport them 8,000 miles or kilometers to higher-cost nations. But remove labor costs as the primary challenge to a business and they are likely to find that it is now transportation costs that are their biggest headache, requiring them to move their operations to several different locations to best serve their clients and still compete on cost.
In the process, old jobs are lost while new jobs are created. And those jobs at both ends can easily be lost or gained by lower, middle, and upper income groups. This should not create some kind of “class warfare”. These are people of different incomes, but all of them are found in one professional channel. They need to work together to deal with challenges, not spend their time shouting insults and blaming each other.
Now, does the above somehow mean that the total of jobs is going to be unaffected, so we have nothing to worry about? No, of course not. I cannot predict the future with accuracy any better than anyone else. I look back at 2005 and wonder how anyone then could have predicted the 2015 of today.
However, I think a general forecast that a lot of jobs are going to be lost is a safe assumption. We may well be talking about the loss of hundreds of millions of jobs over time, not just tens of millions. If so, in years to come (but perhaps not as many as we think) billions of people could be impacted negatively, if indirectly, through a substantial drop in family income.
AI-enhanced automation is a huge and inescapable challenge. It will not be stopped. Of course, there will be those who insist that AI-enhanced automation must be stopped. Uh huh. Forget it. As the video linked to earlier argues, if AI-enhanced automation can do a job more efficiently, with a higher level of quality, and far less expensively than a human, AI-enhanced automation wins. Even if it can be successfully banned in one nation, others will adopt it and profit from it, leaving the first nation with the same result it is trying to avoid – unemployment.
This is a global challenge, not national. There is no “one size fits all” solution that comes to mind. But to look at it as a “class” problem is a big mistake. It will be a problem with many variations, depending on what profession you are considering. That profession (that channel) needs to be the source of solutions. They have to work together, regardless of income level or nationality.
AI-enhanced automation doesn’t threaten the “class system”. It stands outside the class system. It is something very new and different and our discussion of solutions has to reflect that or we end up doing what we are already doing – fighting with each other and everyone losing, one way or another, in the process.
But there is more, much more…
I have only touched on issues today that deserve much more discussion and that day will come. The subject of Artificial Intelligence is certainly one of them. This is not a really new topic. For some years, Elon Musk (among others like Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates recently) has raised the issue of what he so charmingly refers to as killer robots!
However, I am not all that concerned about killer robots terminating the human race. I think there is a much more important, much more profound issue that needs to be confronted, but is rarely mentioned in the public media.
If there is anyone who thinks there is a rule against discussing AI in this respect, than I intend to break that rule. It will be the subject of my next post.
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