Recent research from McKinsey & Company, the consultancy, estimates that in the next twenty years, fully half of currently existing jobs will no longer exist because of automation.
The cloud and Artificial Intelligence and robots and Virtual reality can and will come to take those jobs away, they say. Anything that can be automated will be, and this applies across the spectrum. It will have an effect not just on the fast food worker, but the accountants and lawyers.
This is scary, but it has always been so. As the calendar turned from 1899 to 1900, almost half of the jobs in America were in agriculture. Now it’s two percent. If we were to go back in time and tell the thinkers of that time that in over a hundred years 96% of all farming jobs would be lost what would happen? There would be panic because it would represent a massive dislocation in the work force.
Was there reason to panic? In hindsight, of course not. The reasons were two-fold. First, entrepreneurs made huge technological changes that helped redirect the workforce from the farm to the factory. Innovators from Samuel Colt to Henry Ford made it so that the goods people wanted could be made at a scale people could afford the price tag. And it created jobs. On the other side, society started to invest in the people more – with compulsory schooling arising and the spread of accessible libraries in towns across the nation. Literacy became much more common place. American know-how combined with civic investment were the tools that created the twentieth century, the American Century.
We stand at a similar crossroads. The rise of technology makes some thinkers hopeful. With silicon and metal doing all the hard work, humans will be able to flourish in a way never imagined as creators and consumers of art. Other thinkers are deeply pessimistic, thinking that all the gains will accrue to those at the top while the losses are spread amongst the masses. If I were a betting man, and in a way, I am since I must live in this world, I would suppose that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There will be winners and losers but the key is flexibility and lifetime learning. Our community should make the investment for the next century that allows for this flexibility and lifetime learning.
It is as easy to say “No,” as it is to say “Yes.” The harder thing to explain is why you say either one. In conversations, I have had with voters, the primary concern about passing the referendum was about the cost. I understand the concern. Every dollar out of our pockets is a dollar that is not paying for something else that we need right now. I know what it is like to slide your card for payment, thinking and hoping that you have enough money to pay for that purchase and not sure how you were going to pay for tomorrow. But investing in the community isn’t just about paying for tomorrow. It’s about paying for all the tomorrows. It’s about thinking for the long run and creating the flexibility and providing for lifetime learning today and in the future. Our current infrastructure in Brookfield isn’t up to the task, and the longer we kick the can down the road the more we tie our hands on needed investment. We need to make sure that when we look at the twenty-first century, we did our best to help it become the second American Century.