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The Workforce

This week, McDonald’s announced the upcoming introduction of automated kiosks into all US stores. A month ago Otto made its first delivery, a truck full of beer, between two Colorado towns thanks to a driverless truck. Widespread technological unemployment is on our doorsteps, but it’s not the travesty that the media can portray. We need to be smart about our reaction to such technologies, but continue to support them, possibly more than ever.

Automated McDonald’s kiosks are going to remove a staple of the American workforce, the teenage fast food cashier. This has become the de facto job for young, uneducated kids looking to enter the workforce and get job experience. While the burger flippers may have a secure job at the moment, the back of the house is likely the next stop for fast food robots. Driven by growth, we should expect companies to do everything in their power to lower costs. Like the switchboard operator of the 20th century, the fast food employee, whose job it is to heat and package already prepared food, is most likely a temporary role.

As futuristic as it may seem at the moment, the truck driver is likely headed down a similar path. Otto, the self-driving trucking company purchased by Uber earlier this year, made its first delivery in October, 50,000 cans of Budweiser. The news must have sent shivers down the spines of the 3.5 million truck drivers in the US, not to mention the 5 million others who are employed by the trucking industry. While the truck was manually driven onto Interstate 25, it travelled 120 miles on the highway using true Level 4 Autonomy. The company claims they do not intend to eliminate the job of the truck driver completely, but envision a system in which drivers are employed locally and guide trucks from the highway to their pickup and drop-off points. Any reasonable businesswoman could infer the cost cutting this would provide, limiting the driver hours needed, speeding up delivery time, and reducing accident risk. While executives do their best to assuage the fears of millions, I suggest we plan for the worst (or best) case scenario, that the truck driver is eliminated completely.

The loss of jobs, ‘layoffs’, are generally looked at as a negative outcome of failure or greed. When customers stop flocking to a business, employees are let go. When technology allows executives to cut costs, by shipping jobs overseas or replacing people with machines, employees are let go. But these two situations differ greatly.

Poor business practices resulting in reduced revenue and dying profits often cause jobs to be eliminated. The 2008 recession led to many such losses and regardless of where the blame is put, the US was not in a better place at the end 2008 than two years prior. Employable people are left idle while their former employer is forced to produce less goods or an inferior product. The job they were performing is no longer being done. By anyone or anything.

When machines or foreigners replace Americans in the workforce, the task is still completed. Individuals are left in a difficult position, forced to create a livelihood from a skill set designed for an earlier era. But their former employer (we’ll assume) continues to produce at the same or a superior rate. While truck drivers may see a reduced paycheck, the goods will continue to arrive at their destination. At a cheaper price, more people may be able to afford these goods, or the executives may keep prices stable and take the profit for themselves. From there, the executive may pay more in taxes, donate the money to various causes (such as programs for the unemployed truck drivers), or simply spend the money on luxury goods and allow it to ‘trickle down’. Whatever the outcome, there is clearly a monetary shift from the individuals’ paychecks to the big wigs’ bank accounts. But if there is a silver lining, it is this: the trucks have continued to deliver the goods and the economy has received millions of man hours.

Beyond the truckers and cashiers noted above, we should expect this trend to continue toward many jobs do not require humans. The Second Machine Age, written by economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, goes into depth about these upcoming changes and the speed we can expect them to happen. Just as most people did not anticipate the rapid proliferation of smartphones worldwide, the speed with which artificial intelligence and computing will impact our lives is out of our minds’ reach. As recently as this week, Stephen Hawking discussed the social effects that job loss in the middle class will have, advocating for us to break down barriers and share more than ever before.

On the short term, these prospects are frightening. There are not nearly enough programs in place to handle the mass unemployment/underemployment that I’m suggesting. People would struggle to pay bills and meet their most basic needs. Further, as humans, we are innately driven to work and complete tasks. The idea of a well-designed, guaranteed income that would pay those affected is frightening, not only to those who fear raised taxes, but also people receiving the handouts, suddenly relieved of the pride that comes at the end of a hard day’s work.

But this shift is an opportunity for us to address the problems out of machines’ reach. Numerous truckers, and certainly others, will find themselves with the opportunity to turn toward previously under appreciated issues. They can seize the chance to utilize their minds within roles uniquely meant for humans. The country faces extreme shortages in the personal care, home care, and nursing assistant occupations. While I don’t have a problem drinking a Coke that was delivered by a robot, I can’t bare to think of a day when a machine comforts me after surgery. Beyond that, we face major problems in drug addiction and mental health, areas that surely could be supported by additional manpower.

The 2015 Gates Annual Letter puts a focus on many of the amazing leaps that we have made helping people throughout the world, and the huge steps that still remain. The child mortality rate was cut in half between 1989 and 2014, but it’s still far too high at 4.5%. Seven in ten people in sub-Saharan Africa are farmers, compared to two in one hundred Americans, yet Africa continues to import $50 billion worth of food each year. While the US deals with disparaging rhetoric toward minorities, women, and various others, those same groups face danger and persecution beyond our understanding in countries worldwide.

I consider myself extremely fortunate. I was born in the best country in the world, to the best parents in the world, with every opportunity I could hope for. It may seem easy for me trivialize the plight of a recently laid off employee, but until we are realistic about the truth of technological unemployment, until we anticipate these changes for the creation of value they represent, we will not be prepared to make the best use of the opportunity they provide.

Of course, there is the massive issue of wealth redistribution, who is going to pay for all of these changes? The $732 billion donated on behalf of The Giving Pledge feels like a nice place to start, and likely represents what future policy may resemble. The middle class is looking down the barrel as it never has before, and the way we address this wave of uncertainty before it crashes will shape the planet for centuries.

The other big question seems to be the ability of teenagers, truck drivers, and others to help solve these problems. A few million Americans? I like our chances.


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