Designing for the Next Economic Transformation – Post Job Abundance

Clem Bezold presented on emerging views of next economic transformation at the World Future Society Conference in San Francisco on July 26th.

Our nation is facing a host of challenges, including the futures of work and economy.  As author and social thinker Jeremy Rifkin notes in his most recent book, we are seeing the birth of new economic order “whose life force is as different from market capitalism as the latter was from the feudal and medieval system from which it emerged.”  Rifkin calls this the “zero marginal cost society.”  As many sectors watch the cost of production fade to near zero, the prices for those products should make them nearly free.

In parallel we will automate out of existence many jobs in knowledge and service sectors.  It’s not that we’ll eliminate all human tax preparers, paralegals, pharmacists, nurses and physician assistants, surgeons, cashiers, project and human resource managers, repairmen, programmers and software testers, warehouse workers, drivers, sales people and customer service reps, like we did with milkmen, bowling alley pinsetters, lamplighters, and switchboard operators.  We’ll just need vastly fewer of them than we do today.

How many fewer?  There is a range of forecasts for job loss, and Bezold reviewed these in his presentation at the 2015 World Future Society Conference.  He himself estimates that 10-30% of jobs in fields such as health care and education will disappear by 2030.

Each sector will have its own mechanisms and nuanced paths for this job displacement.  But generally it’ll happen the fastest in those sectors where “disruptive innovations” (and the conditions Clayton Christen identifies) occur.  For instance, health care jobs will be automated (taken over by cognitive computing tools like “Doc Watson”) faster where payment moves beyond fee-for-service and where consumers/patients, particularly those with high deductible plans, have access to powerful digital health coaches.  The path to job reduction in education will depend on how and how quickly we certify and graduate students (e.g., for virtual course work); how we charge for courses (e.g., lower for virtual learning); the quality and ease of use of the virtual teaching tools/approaches; and whether payers (local and state governments) or families and students are forced to seek lower cost options for K-12 and college education.  All of these are likely to happen, but timing will vary, so will job loss.

But as jobs will be reduced, we are entering an era of abundance and potentially radical abundance.  Families and communities are increasingly able to produce and co-produce many of their needs.  Community gardens, urban agriculture, including vertical farming, and home aeroponic and other small space production of food is growing.  (Recall that in 1944 half of the fresh vegetables consumed in the U.S. were from home gardens).  Communities are trading services, developing time banks and local currencies.  Sharing networks, peer-to-peer lending, as well as commercial versions (Uber and Airbnb) continue to expand.  3D printing and distributed manufacturing of much of the “stuff” we need, including electronics, will be done in homes or communities.  Solar and other sustainable energy production costs as well as the energy storage costs will continue to drop.  Abundance is possible.  And that’s before atomically precise manufacturing (APM) allows nanotechnology, as Eric Drexler argues, to give us “radical abundance”.

You’ve heard claims like this before, and you’re probably skeptical.  Case in point, in the 1960s it had been forecast that energy from nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.”  But Bezold believes that potential for abundance in the next two to three decades is there indeed.  We can and need to design for sustainable abundance and we can and need to ensure universal availability.

The road to abundance requires building health equity, and evolving our definition of income inequity.  For instance, as jobs will not be the universal means for distributing wealth and well being, a “citizens income” or universal basic income will be needed.  There is already a long history of proposing this by various names.  In the U.S., most recently, it was Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman in the 1970s, calling for a negative income tax.  Of course, there are major issues of disparities, cultural appropriateness, and the economics of transfer payments related to a citizens income.  We’ll also need to negotiate the futures of K-12 and higher education, health care, and industries where it becomes harder to make a profit.  Even more we’ll need to enable cultures, religions, and nations to live together sustainably.

But we can envision together, design and build a world that works for all.