Technology, employment, and hedonic adaptation

I just finished reading The Economist’s special report on technology and economic growth; synopsis here.  In a nutshell, a ‘third industrial revolution’ brought upon by technological change has some serious consequences for economic development globally.  Pain is here, and will come, for very many people employed in jobs which can be automated by intelligent computers (think teaching, diagnosing illness, driving/trucking, …).  There aren’t obvious new roles for the folks displaced, as tech-heavy sectors need few people.

This leads to the ‘hollowing out’ of the workforce, to borrow The Economist’s words: high demand for the lowest-skilled and highest-skilled labourers, but not much demand for the middle majority of labour.  Economic development may get stymied, as technology-intensive manufacturing means less need for low-skill, low-wage labourers in emerging economies; there’s no easy first step out of poverty.  So what do we, as a society, do with those left out?  Read the special section for The Economist’s take (subscription required….ugh); among their ideas are education, pro-business policy, and a guaranteed minimum annual income.

Regarding the education point: if the world really only needs 5% or so of the population to do the high-skilled stuff (engineering, managing, creative types), is it fair to prioritise 50%+ of kids to get a college degree?  Sounds like a bad bet, unless in future we’ll need college degrees to perform hair cuts and cook food for others.  And what does this do for inequality within countries?  Can we get enough tax from the rich to pay for the hollowed-out class?

A related point: hedonic adaptation, or the hedonic treadmill.  Keynes wrote in 1930 that in a hundred years we’d work 15 hours a week, due to all the wonderful efficiencies wrought from technology.  Seeing as we’re still working around 40 hour weeks, what’s all the technology good for?  Well, this free blog is one nice product, as is the smart phone and HD television I take for granted.  Due to hedonic adaptation amongst us, I reckon we work a huge number of hours merely to sate newly-found ‘needs’ that have arisen over the years.

So maybe part of the ‘hollowing out’ problem can be reduced by the following:

  • Keeping up with the Joneses is nonsense.  Keep an appreciation of what’s truly necessary to live.  The guys at some of the extreme retirement blogs (links at right) have some pretty ingenious ways of living with less.
  • Creativity and group-think is still valuable.  Perhaps the hollowed-out folks can sell their creativity and thinking via blogs like this, and/or through freelancing websites like elance.
  • Appreciate how far we’ve come.  Add in some navel-gazing.  Technology has undoubtedly helped us come a long way.  As The Economist mentions in their piece, communication, entertainment and education have become all but free of charge to anyone with access to the internet.  Make use of it!

End soapbox…

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