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The New Unemployment

I live in a bubble. Most people I know are gainfully employed, or running a company they started.

Statistically, most people my age (25) aren’t doing as well. Youth unemployment is about 13%. Further, most of the unemployed aren’t employable — nearly a million lack even a high school diploma, and another 1.8 million are out of work with only a diploma or its equivalent.

Some would argue that we need More College Education. I disagree. A further 1.3 million young people are out of work with a bachelors, associates or some college experience under their belt. What makes this worse is that college is now more expensive than ever before, and many of these unemployed graduates are saddled with massive student loans they’ll struggle to pay back for decades. I have friends struggling with this right now — stuck at home, unable to jump at opportunities that may not pay much, but that offer valuable experience. Unable to do what they care about (writing, art, whatever) because of a $1000 monthly payment for an asset that hasn’t made them employable.

Eliezer Yudkowsky has an excellent essay about unemployment and automation that I encourage you to read. In it, he argues that, no, robots are not responsible for unemployment. In times like the Industrial Revolution jobs were displaced by the thousands. Farming, previously the default occupation of many Americans, went from something that 80%+ of Americans did to an occupation that less than 5% of Americans do for work today.

My favorite point from the essay was his idea of decreasing barriers to entry for many of the jobs that currently require licensing or special training — things like being a barber, giving someone a shave, or working as a substitute teacher. Do we really need fully licensed college graduates to act as a substitute teacher for 1st and 2nd graders? Seemingly, that’s a valuable job that could be done by someone with less credentialing but strong empathy and emotional skills.

Even specialized disciplines like doctor or pharmacist fall into this category. One of my best friends from college is a pharmacist. Really smart guy, but as far as I could tell he spent most of his time memorizing drug interactions. How will Heptomanza interact with 60mg of Zorpranax?

I have no idea, but I’m guessing a computer model could tell you. Do we really need someone with 6+ years of schooling (at $20k+/year) to ask patients what pills they’re taking and prescribe medicine that won’t make them grow a 3rd arm? Couldn’t you instead take someone with good people skills and a high school education, put them through a year or two of vocational training, and have them interact with patients, suggest prescriptions (that are later signed off on) and monitor patients for compliance? My guess is yes.

Or, outside of lowering barriers to participate in certain economic functions, how could you increase the number of people productively employed and engaged?

I can think of one way: change the definition of full-time work. Rather than hiring 1 person to work full-time, 5–6 days a week, could you divide that job among two people working 3–4 day weeks? I know many people (including myself) would gladly take a 15–20% pay cut to have another day to myself.

I don’t really know what happens here. Maybe everything gets automated. Maybe we all become permanently attached to our lives in Virtual Reality, or everyone learns to code and becomes a well-paid software developer. Who knows.

What I do know is that things will change. More work will become automated, and society will have to respond to automation technology. Whether that’s some sort of basic income (though some argue we already have that), shortened employment terms, or an amalgamation of education bootcamps and the like will be interesting to see.

  • Todd Medema

    Really like this angle – especially with all of the gloom and doom that most other discussions about automation and employment entail

  • Good post, Justin. I think part of the problem is that people of all ages have trouble imagining a world so different from the one we see right in front of us. A silly example that illustrates this: Any discussion of the USPS stopping Saturday delivery, to save money, gets people totally inflamed for no good reason, other than they are accustomed to Saturday mail. “It’s always been done this way.”

    If a person is inclined toward that mindset, it seems to become more entrenched with age. However, IMO, plenty of 20-somethings also have trouble envisioning systems that differ greatly from what’s currently in place.

  • Tony

    I like this post a lot. I’m very bitter about my student loans as me and my wife currently pay $1200/month and have for the last 8 years. Hey, only 7 more to go! The worst part is what the $1200 could be. It could be a house, it could be a few cars, it could be $1200 towards retirement for 15 years.

    College can’t go on to much longer being the price it is.