Tag Archives: automation

My Very Fond Memory of My Favorite Bookstore Owner – (And, Where Will the Jobs Be?)

We lived in Beaumont, TX for one year.  It was the early 1970s, I was fresh out of college, getting my feet wet in the work world.  I was a youth minister, but really preparing for my preaching years.  Every week, (sometimes more than once a week), I would drive to a small bookstore. These days, we would call it an “independent bookstore.”  It was a Christian bookstore – i.e., books that dealt with faith, and church, and preaching…  The woman who owned the bookstore knew her books, and kept up with the new releases.  I mean, she knew what was in these books, what they dealt with…  I got to know this woman.  She was “middle-aged,” and smart.  I was young, hungry to learn.  She was not a “clerk,” she was a teacher.  When I resigned, and readied to leave Beaumont, she was one of the first I told.

I loved that bookstore – and her wise counsel.

I could tell other such stories.  I am a serious Nero Wolfe fan.  I have every volume of the Rex-Stout-written volumes, and re-read the entire corpus every few years.  In Snyder Plaza in University Park, there used to be a Mystery Bookstore.  The woman who owned it (at least, I assume she owned it), tried to tell me that the newer Nero Wolfe mysteries, written by Robert Goldlborough with the approval of the Rex Stout estate, were worthy of my time.  I did not warm up to them, though I appreciated her recommendations.

But now…  as much as I love the customer reviews on Amazon (our blogging colleague Bob Morris has written many, many of them), they do not quite mean as much as those conversations with that Beaumont bookstore owner meant to me.

And now, a few “fulfillment center” workers, and lines of code getting me my Kindle App versions of books, have replaced how many countless book-loving bookstore owners across the country?

Call this a snapshot of the modern economy, and one of the reasons why many jobs are disappearing, and others are “less” than they used to be.  In recent weeks, we have learned that “temp workers” are rising rapidly in the overall percentage of jobs.  Here’s the current national look, from this article:

Workers at temporary-help service agencies accounted for about one-third of U.S. job gains in June.

And, read this from Andrew Sullivan:  Temps Are Here to Stay.  It has links to more.  Here’s a key paragraph.:

In the early 1980s, employment in the “temporary help services” industry—which covers both temp workers and employees of the firms that supply them—stood in the several hundreds of thousands. Now it’s 2.5 million, a seven-fold increase in less than four decades. By 2020, the BLS foresees more than 440,000 new jobs in the sector. In the meantime, the temp craze has expanded from air-conditioned offices to warehouses and construction sites.

And, I recently posted about Farhad Manjoo’s rather alarming look at the ascendancy of Amazon and its threat on all retail.  And I am part of the reason – blame me.  It so happens that I like this development.  Over the weekend, I ordered:  numerous household items, ink for my printer, a book or two for my Kindle App, and did so while never leaving my iPad or my easy chair.  In other words, I am helping put people out of a job.  I called my take on Manjoo’s article:  Amazon’s Secret – Make it Easy; Make it Fast; Make it Insanely Convenient. And that is what Amazon has become for me – easy, fast, convenient.  (Oh, and money-saving).

But, here is the thing.  In our quest for convenience and speed, and in the successful efforts of so many companies’ innovative techniques in giving us “what we want” (Amazon is clearly #1 in this regard), the outcome is this:  it takes fewer and fewer people to provide us what we want.  (And, if you have not read, Amazon has invested in some robot company that will replace even more fulfillment center workers).

And, so…  temp workers are on the rise; automation is on the rise; retail is threatened.  And so I ask again, as I have numerous times on this blog, where will the jobs be?

Help Wanted – Humans Need Not Apply

News item:
Best Buy is in a lot of trouble

News item:
The robot population is growing…fast.


Put this in the “what have you read recently that makes you stop and think?” category.

Yesterday, I read the article by Farhad Manjoo, Making Best Buy Better:  The electronics chain’s only hope is to stock fewer products and sell them a whole lot better.  Here’s a key excerpt:

Best Buy is in a lot of trouble. Once the undisputed leader in technology retail—it vanquished Circuit City, CompUSA, and every mom-and-pop electronics store in the country—the company is now being killed by Amazon online and Apple offline. In March, Best Buy reported a $1.7 billion quarterly loss and announced that it would close 50 stores.  

And, don’t forget:

Amazon recently bought Kiva Systems,a company that makes robots that bring items to warehouse workers for packing, instead of the workers having to run all over the warehouse finding the items. That’s fine for now, but it’s pretty obvious that before too long, the robotic systems will become sophisticated enough that you won’t need the workers at all (or at least you’ll only need a few of them).

That paragraph comes from an article linked to on Andrew Sullivan’s blog: Our Robot Future.  I have posted before about the rise of automation (in fact, quite a few times), asking “Where will the jobs be?’ This latest news does not bring me any comfort.  Here is the key excerpt from Rise of the Machines by Paul Waldman, linked to by Sullivan:

We’re all still going to have to find ways to get people to pay us for doing stuff. Otherwise we won’t have the money to purchase the fruits of all those robots’ labors.

…the problem won’t be that the robots will kill us, but that the rise of robots will disintegrate our society, none of us will be able to make a living, and we’ll kill each other. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice if a robot cleaned your toilet for you?

Don’t think human looking robots.  Think software, automation…  Now, I don’t know about you, but my life is increasingly filled with such robots of one kind or another replacing work that used to be done by humans.  Just this week, I ordered multiple items from two sources. Amazon and Drugstore.com.  I talked to no one.  I clicked my mouse, and two days later the products arrived at my front door.  Oh, some humans were involved in the transactions.  A driver delivered the boxes.  Someone supposedly fetched the items from the giant fulfillment center shelves.  But I did not go into a store and interact with any humans; software facilitated the orders.

The issue is not “will there be more robots replacing more human jobs?”.  There will be.  A lot more!  (Read the Waldman article.  Or, just google it.  And the Google automated software will fetch you a mountain of articles describing our automated future).

The question is (and the chorus asking this question is growing), “Where will the jobs be?”  Oh, there will be industries adding jobs all along.  But will there be enough new jobs, in enough new industries, to provide work for all the unemployed former Best Buy, Circuit City, Amazon.com, workers?

Anyway, that is some of what I read this week.

Where Will The Jobs Be? – Even Waiters Are In Jeopardy; High School Graduates Really Do Have Fewer Places To Work

News item:
The company is selling its cost-savings and margin-boosters, not just its benefits for customers sick of waiting for the bill, to businesses. First and foremost: lower labor costs…
Annie Lowery, This Waiter Doesn’t Need a Tip:  How restaurants will use tablet computers to replace servers. – Slate.com.


In an ongoing series of posts over the last couple of years, I have asked “where will the jobs be?”  I have presented synopses of a number of books (practically all of the best sellers) on the financial crisis of recent history.  But the problem that bothers me the most is this:  more than the mortgage crisis, the Wall Street crisis, the European/Greek crisis, the real crisis is the disappearance of jobs for the hard-working high school graduates.

In Pinched:  How the Great Recession Has Narrowed our Futures and What We Can Do About It, Don Peck (author of the widely read Atlantic article, Can the Middle Class Be Saved?), writes this:

“Forty years ago, thirty years ago, if you were one of the fairly constant fraction of boys who wasn’t ready to learn in high school, there were ways for you to enter the mainstream economy,” says Henry Farber, an economist at Princeton. “When you woke up, there were jobs. There were good industrial jobs, so you could have a good industrial, blue-collar career. Now those jobs are gone.” And men have yet to adjust.
In 1967, 97 percent of thirty-to fifty-year-old American men with only a high-school diploma were working; in 2010, just 76 percent were.
In her 2010 Atlantic essay “The End of Men,” the journalist Hanna Rosin posed the question “What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?”

From 97% to 76% is quite a drop!  Where did these jobs go?  Robert Reich attributes the problem primarily to “automation.”  He wrote this in Aftershock – The Next Economy and America’s Future

The problem was not simply the loss of good jobs to workers in foreign nations but also automation…  Remember bank tellers?  Telephone operators?  The fleets of airline workers behind counters who issued tickets?  Service station attendants?  These and millions of other jobs weren’t lost to globalization; they were lost to automation.  American has lost at least as many jobs to automated technology as it has to trade.

I have little worry about the future of the better-educated (though, even the jobs for this group are not quite as plentiful and well-paying as they were just a few years ago).  The much bigger worry is for the “lesser-educated.”  And the problem is that, literally, there are not enough jobs left for this group.  (See the quote at the top; now even wait staff will be reduced by technology).

So, as I keep asking, “where will the jobs be?”

Robots, Automation, and don’t forget Software, May Be Coming After Your Job (Yes, Yours!) – Read And Ponder The Insight Of Farhad Manjoo

The problem was not simply the loss of good jobs to workers in foreign nations but also automation…  Remember bank tellers?  Telephone operators?  The fleets of airline workers behind counters who issued tickets?  Service station attendants?  These and millions of other jobs weren’t lost to globalization; they were lost to automation.  American has lost at least as many jobs to automated technology as it has to trade. 
Robert Reich, Aftershock:  The Next Economy and America’s Future


Ok – if you force me, I think I would have to admit that I like reading Farhad Manjoo more than just about any other writer.  He is witty, insightful, to the point.  And this article puts detail and explanation to the idea in the quote from Robert Reich above – automation is genuinely threatening our economy.

(illustration from the Slate.com article)

The article, at Slate.com, is titled Will Robots Steal Your Job?You’re highly educated. You make a lot of money. You should still be afraid.  He uses words like:  “peril,” and “terrified.”  What he says is that if you really want to know where the jobs have gone, and are definitely going, they are going to nonhuman employees.  Reich and others have sounded the alarms.  Manjoo makes it real – and the real really is frightening.

Here is his main point:  

At this moment, there’s someone training for your job. He may not be as smart as you are—in fact, he could be quite stupid—but what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for in drive, reliability, consistency, and price. He’s willing to work for longer hours, and he’s capable of doing better work, at a much lower wage. He doesn’t ask for health or retirement benefits, he doesn’t take sick days, and he doesn’t goof off when he’s on the clock.
What’s more, he keeps getting better at his job. Right now, he might only do a fraction of what you can, but he’s an indefatigable learner—next year he’ll acquire a few more skills, and the year after that he’ll pick up even more. Before you know it, he’ll be just as good a worker as you are. And soon after that, he’ll surpass you.
By now it should be clear that I’m not talking about any ordinary worker. I’m referring to a nonhuman employee—a robot, or some kind of faceless software running on a server.

And for those who say, “no worry – we will just create new kinds of jobs,” well, I hope so.  But Mr. Manjoo isn’t so sure.  Consider these concluding paragraphs to his article:

Most economists aren’t taking these worries very seriously. The idea that computers might significantly disrupt human labor markets—and, thus, further weaken the global economy—so far remains on the fringes. The only deep treatment of this story that I’ve seen has come from a software developer named Martin Ford. In 2009, Ford self-published a small book called The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. In his book, Ford argues persuasively that computers will redefine the very idea of “work” in the modern age.

When I spoke to him recently, I asked Ford about economists’ standard rebuttal to fears of automation—the story of the decline of agricultural jobs in the United States. In 1900, 41 percent of the American workforce was employed in agriculture. Over the next 100 years, the technological revolution in farming dramatically increased productivity, enabling fewer and fewer people to produce more and more food. By 2000, just 2 percent of the workforce was employed in agriculture. Yet this shift, which required millions of people to move off farms and acquire new skills, didn’t ruin the economy. Instead, by reducing food prices and freeing up people to do more profitable things with their time, it contributed to massive growth. Why won’t that happen again with information technology—why won’t we all just learn new skills and find other jobs?

“There’s no question that there will be new things in the future,” Ford says. “But the assumption that economists are making is that those industries are going to be labor-intensive, that there are going to be lots of jobs there. But the fact is we don’t see that anymore. Think of all the high-profile companies we’ve seen over the past 10 years—Google, Facebook, Netflix, Twitter. None of them have very many employees, because technology is ubiquitous—it gets applied everywhere, to new jobs and old jobs. Whatever appears in the future, whatever pops up, we can be certain that IT will get applied right away, and all but the most routine-type jobs won’t be there anymore.”

Over the next few days, I’ll be examining how Ford’s predictions are playing out in a number of professions. I’ll start by looking at how the people in my own life are being replaced by machines. First, I’ll look at my dad’s career, pharmacy. Then, I’ll examine my wife’s line of work, medicine. In my third piece, I’ll turn my investigation inward—how will robots replace writers like myself and Web curators like Jason Kottke? I’ll end the series with a pair of stories on how machines will change the lives of lawyers and scientists. I hope you read every part—if you’re going to outsmart the robots, you’ll need all the help you can get.

So, I will be following these articles in the coming days.  I suspect that I will enjoy reading them — but I won’t like them very much.

Where Have All The Jobs Gone? – Automation Has Replaced Them One By One

So, the problem is a serious problem.  Not for most of those with college degrees, and not for those, with or without a degree, who are creative, innovative, serious self-starters.

But our society will not thrive if those are the only people with work to do and money to spend.

Here is the passage that puts it into perspective.  It is from Robert Reich, from his book Aftershock:  The Next Economy and America’s Future:

The problem was not simply the loss of good jobs to workers in foreign nations but also automation…  Remember bank tellers?  Telephone operators?  The fleets of airline workers behind counters who issued tickets?  Service station attendants?  These and millions of other jobs weren’t lost to globalization; they were lost to automation.  America has lost at least as many jobs to automated technology as it has to trade. 

Do you remember the old days, when you paid a toll to drive on a highway?  I mean, you paid it in cash, and if you did not have the exact change, you paid it to a human being.  She (frequently, a she) would make your change.  It may not have always been a challenging, fun job.  But it was a job!  And the people who worked at such jobs left work and participated in the great bargain.  Reich again:

Henry Ford understood the basic economic bargain that lay at the heart of a modern, highly productive economy.  Workers are also consumers.  Their earnings are continuously recycled to buy the goods and services other workers produce.  But if earnings are inadequate and this basic bargain is broken, an economy produces more goods and services than its people are capable of purchasing.  (Global trade complicates this bargain but doesn’t negate it). 

When there is not work for the “common people,” (and by the way – there are a whole lot of those “common people” out there – as I said, we’ve got serious trouble), the bargain is broken, and the economy is in deep, serious trouble.

We started with this...

went to this...

and now we have this -- not a person (a person with a job) in sight...

Where will the jobs be?