Meet Mr. Robot – Your New Boss

By David R. Wheeler

Seventy-five straight months of jobs growth!

The longest streak of private-sector job growth on record!

Unemployment drops to lowest point since before the Great Recession!

Based on out-of-context headlines, the Obama era has been great for the American worker. Dig a little deeper, and you might think we’re going back to the Middle Ages. As in: A few kings, a lot of peasants, and zero middle class.

A study by economists from Harvard and Princeton shows that an astonishing 94 percent of the 10 million new jobs created during the Obama era were temporary, contract, or part-time “gig” jobs.

The research — by prominent economists Lawrence Katz of Harvard University and Alan Krueger at Princeton University — shows that the overall number of workers in these kinds of jobs increased by about 5 percent, going from 10.7 percent of the population to a whopping 15.8 percent.

People have their theories about who’s to blame for this disaster. I point my finger squarely at Silicon Valley. The Valley’s vision for the future is to destroy 20th century companies (many of which have hundreds of thousands of full-time employees) and replace them with a billionaire leader and an army of gig workers.

Ten years ago, the company with the biggest market cap was industrial giant GE, which employed 300,000 full-time workers. Today, it’s tech giant Apple, which employs about 80,000. You can expect a future in which big companies employ fewer and fewer full-time workers.

Trump won the election in part because of his quest to stop the outflow of manufacturing jobs, but that’s just the beginning of our worries. White-collar jobs are at risk, too.

An Oxford study shows automation may render half of today’s jobs obsolete within the next 20 years. “A robot could never do my job,” you might be saying to yourself. Well, what industry do you work in? Think about what the Uber model would do to it. For those in the cab-driving, newspaper, and music industries, it’s already happened. An Australian study warns that half of today’s students are chasing dying careers.

Instead of creating jobs, Silicon Valley is effectively erasing them, especially for younger workers. Despite falling unemployment, college grads in their early 20s are often stuck in low-paying jobs that don’t require a degree. In fact, percentage of young people trapped in low-skill, low-paying jobs is 44 percent, a 20-year high.

Only 36 percent of university graduates have jobs that pay at least $45,000, which is a sharp decline from the 1990s, after adjusting for inflation. Worse, the percentage of young people making less than $25,000 has topped 20 percent, worse than the pre-Internet days of 1990. Holders of a bachelor’s degree were far better off before the digital revolution.

But wait, you ask: What about all those Mark Zuckerbergs who are creating their own jobs? Answer: They’re practically non-existent. The number of people under 30 who own private businesses has reached a 24-year low.

Oh, and Trump’s plan? Forget it. Playing whack-a-mole with the industries trying to outsource jobs is a losing proposition, because automation is an even bigger problem. “A band-aid” would be far too high of a compliment for Trump’s plan. Perhaps Scotch tape on a crumbling Hoover Dam would be a better metaphor.

Reality check: Companies exist to make money, not to make people happy. If companies can make more money by automating jobs, or by turning full-time jobs into gig jobs, they will do so.

Deregulation might make a small difference by encouraging small businesses to hire more people, but there’s a much bigger trend at work here. You can think of it as a transition within our workforce from full-time jobs to part-time jobs — a shift from W-2 tax forms to 1099 tax forms. That’s why the sharing economy is also called the “1099 economy.”

The Obama administration is misleadingly trumpeting job-growth numbers, ignoring the number of part-time and gig jobs. Incoming president-elect Trump is misleadingly attacking manufacturing companies, pretending that we can stop an outsourcing trend that’s been going on for four decades already.

Unless a miracle happens, such as Silicon Valley deciding that it’s in its best interests to start creating multi-billion-dollar research centers across the country, with the express purpose of providing full-time employment to millions of Americans, then it will be left to the government to fill the void. Yes, the government. If your job doesn’t provide you with health insurance, how exactly are you going to afford it? If your past three jobs have all been automated, and you have no prospects, how exactly are you going to make ends meet?

“Well, I’m a hard worker! I’ll do anything! I’ll even work at McDonalds!”

Right. Until the robots start taking people’s orders.

David R. Wheeler, the editor of AliveTampaBay, is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Tampa. His work has been published by CNN, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The New York Times.

 

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