George Jetson’s job: what if there aren’t any jobs in the future?

Do you remember what George Jetson’s job is/was/will be?

Mr Jetson is, or will be, I suppose, an employee at Spacely’s Space Sprockets, and his job title is “digital index operator,” which primarily requires him to repeatedly push a single button (or on occasion a series of buttons) on a computer named RUDI, short for: Referential Universal Digital Indexer. He has complained about his heavy work load, having to push a button for one hour, two days a week.

From my favorite CNNMoney reporter:

Be ‘very afraid’ about globalization’s next phase

2016 has been a wake-up call in the U.S., U.K. and beyond on the pain felt by many people from global trade. But this could be just the beginning.

by Heather Long | @byHeatherLong | December 23, 2016: 12:51 PM ET

“What comes next in globalization? Be very afraid,” says economist Richard Baldwin, who worked on trade negotiations for President George H.W. Bush and has just published “The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization.”

President-elect Donald Trump is focused on the 5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs lost since 2000 due to globalization and technology. That was the Phase 1 of globalization.

Now get ready for Phase II when robots and low-cost workers abroad replace service sector jobs too. Phase II could have an even bigger impact on jobs. Consider that the U.S. has created about 12 million service sector jobs under President Obama alone.

“We could have hotel rooms in New York cleaned by people sitting in Guatemala driving robots,” Baldwin says. “This isn’t Star Trek.”

Higher skilled jobs won’t be immune either. Already surgeons can perform operations by directing robots from remote locations. It doesn’t matter if the doctor is a few feet away or thousands of miles away. He calls it Remote Intelligence or RI.

“I’m amazed people haven’t caught onto it yet,” says Baldwin. “Everyone is fascinated with Artificial Intelligence. What we should be worrying about is Remote Intelligence.”

There’s more at Miss Long’s original, but it seems to me that the greatest threat to American jobs isn’t going to be Chinese manufacturing, but Bill Gates. We still manufacture automobiles in the United States, but welding robots have replaced welders, and machines have replaced machinists. It won’t be long before Cosmo Spacely, Mr Jetson’s boss, figures out that he can replace Mr Jetson with a computer, one which won’t goof off, one which doesn’t take vacations, and one which doesn’t need to take ‘mental health’ days off following a grueling day of pushing a button for an hour. The problem isn’t that Mr Jetson is so overworked for two whole hours every week; the problem is that Mr Jetson won’t have a job at all.

There have been plenty of stories about fast food restaurants replacing order-takers with computerized order-placing, most of which speak of lost jobs due to attempts to raise the minimum wage, but my wife and I used one of those new-fangled things at a Red Robin in Allentown a few years ago, with no connection to talk about the minimum wage. There was an order-placing touch-screen at every table, and once our food was ready, a waiter brought it to us, simple as that. Those touch screens might occasionally malfunction, but they were at work, on time, every day.

Of course, we all know that receptionists have been almost totally replaced by computers. If you know your party’s four digit extension, you may enter it now; if you need to speak to a living human being, too bad, so sad, must suck to be you.

Snarkiness aside, the obvious question becomes: how will Americans support themselves in the future? Mr Spacely owns the company, so he’ll be fine, but he really won’t need Mr Jetson, or many employees at all.

Miss Long’s article continues to note Mr Baldwin’s suggestions:

  1. Accept the 21st Century reality that low-skilled manufacturing jobs are not coming back.
  2. Help workers retrain — or even relocate.
  3. Make the political case that trade can help everyone.

You can read the original to see where the points are fleshed out, but those three steps still beg the point: in a world in which population is still increasing, will actual jobs continue to increase, or will spreading technology reduce the total number of jobs available? Yes, every computer, every touchscreen, every robot which replaces a job has to be built by someone, somewhere, it it takes far fewer man-hours to build those devices than the man-hours those machines will replace in the economy. When Mr Baldwin suggests that governments will need to help workers retrain — something Miss Long’s article notes the United States does relatively little of compared to other industrialized nations — or even relocate them, that makes sense only if there are actual jobs for which they can be retrained, and workplaces to which they can be relocated.

The great vision of the future was of a society of leisure, of luxury, but if there are no jobs, only those people who own the means of robot production will have the money for that leisure and that luxury.

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