The knee-jerk and xenophobic answer is simple: “Our jobs and wealth is stolen by immigrants, China, the establishment, capitalists, big business, trade deals…”
There is however a much bigger force that indirectly angers the ‘man on the street’, but it presents itself veiled in quite deceptive arrangements. It is technology.
The industrial revolution, which started in the 1700’s, had many sub-cycles – the mechanisation of the textile industry, the harnessing of steam, electricity generation, the moving assembly line and other spinoffs – in which machines changed people’s way of life as well as their methods of manufacture forever. We are in the midst of another, accelerating meta-cycle; the digitisation of production.
Recent US research reveals that only around 20% of American manufacturing jobs lost in the last 20 years were due to Chinese competition – technological change was responsible for the other 80%. In domain after domain, computers race ahead in traditionally human areas of skill. In a world of accurate data, powerful sensors, massive storage capacity and fast-tracking processing power, computers improve so quickly as ‘cheap, smart workers’ that their capabilities pass from the realm of science fiction into business reality in years instead of decades.
There is an exponential digital innovation curve at work, with a real effect on the worker class. The world’s struggle with deflation (i.e. downward pressure on input costs, including wages) is an unintended consequence of the transformative power of technologically-enhanced production processes.
Technological advancement in the workplace is nothing new. John Maynard Keynes, the celebrated economist, said the following in 1930: “We are inflicted with a new disease of which people will hear a great deal in years to come – namely, technological unemployment. This is unemployment due to economising the use of labour faster than the pace at which we find new uses for labour.”
What we experience today is therefore nothing new; productivity increases accelerate, without flowing through to household income. The only difference is the speed at which it is happening.
To thrive in life, you have to adjust to reality. We have to flow with the cyber ‘super nova’, and extract maximum opportunities from it, instead of spending our energy resisting it. We have to stay great at what people are great at – and make sure that we remain beneficiaries of technological progress, never slaves. Basically, we have to make sure that we never compete against machines, but with machines – and that we aren’t caught out by the relentless progress made in the field of artificial intelligence, smarter algorithms and robotics.
We are challenged to build our competitiveness in the areas where machines find it difficult to beat us.