Workers Displaced by Automation Could Become Caregivers for Humans
Sooner or later, the US will face mounting job losses due to advances in automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Automation has emerged as a bigger threat to American jobs than globalization or immigration combined. A 2015 report from Ball State University attributed 87 percent of recent manufacturing job losses to automation. Soon enough, the number of truck and taxi drivers, postal workers, and warehouse clerks will shrink. What will the 60 percent of the population that lacks a college degree do? How will this vulnerable part of the workforce find both an income and the sense of purpose that work provides?
Oren Etzioni (@etzioni) is CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and professor at the Allen School of Computer Science at University of Washington.
Recognizing the enormous challenge of technological unemployment, Google recently announced it’s donating $1 billion to nonprofits that aim to help workers adjust to the new economy. However, the solutions proposed by computer scientists such as MIT’s Daniela Rus (technical education) and venture capitalists such as Marc Andreessen (new job creation) are unlikely to come fast enough or to be broad enough. Frankly, it’s impractical to train most coal miners to become data miners.
Some of Silicon Valley’s leading entrepreneurs are floating the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) as a solution for job loss, with the likes of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Tesla’s Elon Musk supporting this approach. But as MIT economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have pointed out, UBI doesn’t do as good a job as other policies in keeping people engaged in the workforce and providing the sense of purpose that work offers. UBI is also unlikely to garner the necessary political support.
So what can help? There is a category of jobs today that is critical to our society. Many of us will employ the services of these workers, but these positions are all-too-often held in low esteem with poor pay and minimal career advancement prospects. Some are designing so-called social robots to take these jobs. Yet, these are jobs we categorically do not want machines doing for us, though machines could potentially assist humans.
I am speaking of caregiving. This broad category includes companions to the elderly, home health aides, baby sitters, special needs aides, and more. We ought to uplift this category to be better paid and better regarded, yet still accessible to those without higher education. Laurie Penny points out that many traditionally male occupations are in jeopardy from automation, yet caregiving jobs are traditionally female; still, that gender gap can change once caregivers are uplifted and other options are more limited.
There is no denying that uplifting will be expensive, but so are UBI and many other proposed programs. The riches resulting from increased automation will have to be shared more broadly and could be used to help fund caregiving programs.
Instead of expecting truck drivers and warehouse workers to rapidly re-train so they can compete with tireless, increasingly capable machines, let’s play to their human strengths and create opportunities for workers as companions and caregivers for our elders, our children, and our special-needs population. With this one action, society can both create jobs for the most vulnerable segments of our work force and improve the care and connection for all.
The key skills for this category of jobs are empathy and the ability to make a human connection. The very definition of empathy is feeling someone else’s feelings; a machine cannot do that as well as a person. People thrive on genuine connections, not with machines, but with each other. You don’t want a robot taking care of your baby; an ailing elder needs to be loved, to be listened to, fed, and sung to. This is one job category that people are—and will continue to be—best at.
As society ages, demand for caregivers will increase. According to the UN, the number of people aged 60 years and older has tripled since 1950, and the combined senior and geriatric population is projected to reach 2.1 billion by 2050.
Rising employment for caregivers is part of a broader multi-decade shift in our economy from agriculture and manufacturing to delivering services. A major shift to more caregiving may require us to re-consider some of our values—rather than buying fancier and more expensive gadgets each year, can consumers place more value on community, companionship, and connection?
What are the steps to make this vision a reality? Society should find a way to substantially improve the compensation for caregivers that help elders and special-needs populations. Realistically, uplifting caregiving will require government programs and funding. The cost of these programs can be defrayed by increased economic growth and productivity due to automation. The many workers who are not interested in, or capable of, technical work could instead receive training and accreditation in a variety of caregiving occupations. While some will simply be companions, others can obtain certification as teachers, nurses, and more.
Caregiving is a realistic option for many displaced workers, and one that is both humane and uniquely human.
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