One of the significant and lasting effects of the 2008 recession in the U.S. was the resulting loss of millions of jobs. The economic meltdown hammered primarily middle-class Americans as the economy went into a free fall. When President Obama took office in 2009, the economy was peeling off jobs at the rate of more than 700,000 a month.
This catastrophe was accompanied by at least a decade of stagnant wages, the move by businesses to cut back on employees’ hours and benefits to maximize profits, the outsourcing of jobs overseas, the loss of well-paying manufacturing, auto and factory jobs and the widespread changes to the job and work landscape.
The pain is real.
In the midst of the dizzying upward spiral of the stock market, record profits for big business like oil companies, Big Pharma, banks and other financial entities, regular families are constrained by economic forces that have left them looking at prosperity from afar, stressed out, working harder but bringing home less real wages. There’s also real concerns about if young people, displaced employees and older Americans will have a place in the new economy.
In 2017, Americans generally still have not fully recovered from the devastation wrought by the twin specters of massive unemployment and the national housing meltdown. In fact, the 2016 presidential elections turned on intense voter anger and frustration on the right, middle and left, primarily over the loss of earning power and related issues.
Those anxieties and concerns bled over into the elections. And those who were drowning frantically clutched at straws and grabbed onto the candidate most likely to fulfill the promise of more jobs.
Anyone who seeks to take care of themselves and their families can relate to the desire to make a decent/living wage or salary. What is a job? At its simplest, it is satisfaction, reaching shared goals with colleagues, fulfilling personal and organizational missions, providing self-esteem, money in your pocket, independence, self-sufficiency.
But we live in uncertain times. Many of the traditional guideposts and moorings that we used to depend on have shifted or disappeared. That has left large swaths of Americans rudderless and those like politicians and business executives and managers who aren’t forward-thinking unable to provide a way forward.
Yet, where some see a terrifying dystopian landscape, others see change, opportunity and vehicles for transformation.
Such is the case for robots and artificial intelligence.
Politicians across the ideological spectrum have promised to bring back millions of well-paying jobs to the United States, but that’s easier said than done. Futurists, economists, digital and other tech experts are warning of a new reality that most Americans may not be prepared for. Experts at the World Economic Forum are predicting what they call a “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which will be characterized by unprecedented “developments in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and biotech.”
By 2020, they say, more than five million jobs once performed and handled by human beings will be taken over by robots in the form of artificial-intelligence systems and machines. If it’s any consolation, Digital Trends’ Lulu Chang reports, the impact will be short-term.
Chang and others say that the jobs most at risk at being replaced by machines are the “administrative and routine white-collar office” jobs and slated to disappear are in the manufacturing, construction, production and extraction industries.
So what to do?
Some solutions — mostly middle- to long-term — include what job experts call variously, upskilling, redeployment and productivity enhancement through technology.
In lay terms, this means retraining. The U.S. is quickly becoming an information-have and have-not economy. As analysts at the U.S. Department of Labor point out, “in the information-based, skills-intensive economy of the 21st century, one thing is clear: knowing means growing.”
Employment analysts note that the fastest growing jobs as we move into this new century include computer engineers, paralegals, dental hygienists, desktop publishing specialists, securities and financial sales workers and systems analysts.
It’s a balancing act with technology and globalization acting as double-edged swords. They are creating more opportunities for those who gain access if they have the training and tools they need to hone and sharpen their skills, though the subsequent effect on the supply of lower-end jobs is still unclear.
So going forward, elected officials need to be willing to invest in the new workforce by allocating money to pay for retraining; policymakers, labor leaders, educators and others must think out of the box as they devise solutions that speak to the challenge of imparting on workers the skills needed to successfully navigate the new economy; and workers must be willing to jump in to make the changes.
Labor Department analysts point out that perhaps the greatest challenge to American workers is the reality that technology combined with rising globalization is presenting a range of new challenges. As the number of high-paying jobs increases, they said, well-paid, low-skilled jobs are becoming harder to find. Globalization has made it easier for businesses to choose low-skilled workers at lower pay in other parts of the world. And technology has rendered many jobs obsolete here at home.
This illustrates the importance of making job security a priority by equipping all Americans with the tools in the form of education and cutting-edge high-tech skills to succeed in this new economy; ensuring that laid off workers get transition assistance; helping young people get a foothold on the career ladder; and not tossing away middle-aged and older workers and the institutional knowledge and experience they possess.
George H. Lambert Jr. is the president and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.