COMMENTARY: We can’t let robots take away our jobs

In a world that seems in constant danger of going over the edge, why isn’t more effort going into making sure robots don’t steal every last job and leave our kids fighting, cage-match style, for whatever’s left?

Jobs are a key measure of how well the economy is ticking along, but they have become a partisan battleground.

The elites of Silicon Valley, sensing a backlash against a system in which no-wage robots toil 24 hours a day without complaint, have suggested a universal income to provide those displaced by technology with a small, guaranteed stipend. It’s not an idea that has caught fire.

Douglas Rushkoff, the author of the magnificent book “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus,” recently noted that the instinct for some to jump on the bandwagon for a universal income is self-serving: “[Leaders at Silicon Valley tech firms] understand the basic math undermining their long-term business plans: If they automate all the jobs, who will be left to buy their services? … The penniless have no consumer behavior to exploit.”

On the other extreme, the Trump administration ignored its own lamentation that mid-skill jobs have left for China when it issued guidance for “state efforts to test incentives that make participation in work or other community engagement a requirement for continued Medicaid eligibility” for able-bodied adults.

If it’s 100 percent true, as some research suggests, that employment is beneficial for physical and general mental health, then this would likely make Medicaid recipients less reliant on welfare in the future. It still leaves open the question of where the jobs are going to come from.

However, it’s not inevitable that automation will result in mass job loss. Those who look on the sunny side of automation love to cite the economist David Autor’s observation that the introduction of the ATM increased, rather than decreased, the number of bank teller jobs that require more creativity and problem-solving than just counting money and making deposits.

The real problem underlying this tension is that it’s not anyone’s priority to figure out how U.S. corporations, societies and governments can work together to ensure the future holds meaningful jobs.

For a joint study, Bloomberg and New America convened a commission of more than 100 leaders in business, technology policy and academia. The resulting report, “Shift,” underscored these points about American labor:

■ The central role of employers in society has eroded, and we don’t know what will replace them — but we need “networks of small businesses, modern guilds, worker associations and entrepreneurship training, while at the same time facilitating new ways to administer worker benefits.”

■ “The future of work fails to align neatly with traditional political coalitions,” and “for the first time, automated systems could affect prospects for people in every demographic and skill level.”

■ We worry about millennials’ ability to forge careers, but “the fastest-growing segment of the workforce … continues to be — and will be for the foreseeable future — older workers.”

■ The richest cities aren’t reflective of the rest of the country: “Commission members from noncoastal areas and smaller towns pointed to discrepancies in education, technology, access to capital and networking opportunities. Long-distance moves are on the decline.”

While it’s fantastic that a group of thoughtful experts came together to establish ideas for ensuring that the remainder of this century offers meaningful, decently paid work, it’s long past time that tomorrow’s jobs become a national priority.

One thing is for sure: We can’t let Silicon Valley and multinational corporations determine the future of our work for us.

Contact Esther Cepeda at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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