Looking Out: Selfishness Won’t Save Us

Last semester, I went to an event at Oxford organized by The Economist called “The Future of Work.” This title has become shorthand for nebulous concepts such as “the AI/Automation revolution” and how they might lead to a mass chronic unemployment in the near future. I have had a keen interest in this for a couple years and jumped at this free event. While the issue is not taken seriously enough by most governments yet, even though they will have to develop policies to handle this massive crisis in the next decade, it was encouraging to see that this prominent magazine was focusing on it.

The event, which was supposed to feature a panel and two talks, turned out to approach the “Future of Work” from the most uninteresting angle possible: “What should I do?” The organizers thought about this event in the sense that the automation revolution is coming, so how can our attendees save their own jobs? This selfish vision produced an event that included a report presentation on innovation-inducing education, a discussion with the head of Oxford career services, and a panel of various qualified experts on the future work who were asked the boring question: “In your expert opinion, how can people in this room help themselves?”

The entire discussion tackled this question for an audience of extremely privileged Oxford students and asked how they can hedge their bets in the event of an AI-takeover of management, coding, and white-collar jobs. The panelists were asked: How can these people here prepare so they can remain employed throughout this society-changing crisis? While a landmark study on the subject predicts that 47 percent of jobs will be automated, the question on the table was: “How can I be in the 53 percent?”

It would be a fluke and not a major worry if this selfish attitude was unique to The Economist. Alas, many journalists thinking about the future of work seem to ask questions along this vein: How can my readers protect themselves?

It shows a lack of vision and a depressing lack of concern for society at large that smart people who write for major publications believe an individual with the right education and preparation can personally avoid a culture-altering change in the labor market. If, as many experts believe, we are approaching a future where up to half of the population will be chronically unemployable, everything surrounding wealth inequality, the labor market, the structure of the economy, the culture surrounding work and identity will go through unprecedented rapid upheaval. Ignoring these critical questions in favor of selfish shortcuts on how to personally dodge the crisis is shameful. It means either that the journalists asking these questions lack vision and compassion, or worse yet, they think their readers lack these qualities.

The press needs to pursue the automated future in more depth and move from “Which majors will be the safest?” to questions like “How will we tame inequality when firms use no labor and deliver massive dividends?”