In 1930, John Maynard Keynes imagined that by the year 2030, people would only need to work an average of 15 hours per week. Based on my experience, I know we aren’t there yet, but when we do, and it is ‘when’ … not ‘if’, how will society handle the challenge?
Challenge? Surely we are all waiting for the time we can all kick back and work 15 hours a week? Well, let’s say for easy math, that the average working week in 2016 is 45 hours. If everyone only worked for 15 hours, isn’t that the equivalent of a 66 % ‘unemployment’ rate? However you look at it, that is a societal problem (at least as society is organized today).
There is a meme that circulates through the inter-webs that says
Of course robots in factories have been replacing people for years. And for a long time in the ‘West’, if your manufacturing job was not replaced by a machine, it was exported to another country, where the work was done for less money. It isn’t going to stop anytime soon. Those jobs (no matter what you hear from the politicians) are not coming back. In fact, the automation and/or export of your job is only accelerating. Even from the countries that the West originally exported them too. In parallel, the world’s population keeps growing.
“Don’t worry, the gig economy is going to save us, right?” Wrong.
There is no doubt that there is a mass exodus from ’normal’ jobs to the gig economy. Uber is in fact the poster child of the gig economy, ’employing’  hundreds of thousands of drivers all over the world – 1.5 million – worldwide, according to Mark MacGann – and counting.
But not so fast. They are also a global leader in thinking about (and acting on) the opportunities of the autonomous car. It is well documented that they are seeking to replace humans with robots.
Loss-making Uber would make drastic savings on its biggest cost—drivers—if it were able to incorporate self-driving cars into its fleet.
And it’s not just Uber … it was recently estimated that Drones alone could replace $127 billion worth of human labor and services. And yes, I know that new jobs are being introduced, but so far not as many as being lost, and certainly not ‘meaningful’ jobs. Burger flipping doesn’t count, and anyway, that entry-level job is disappearing fast.
So the problem is not going away, ’the gig economy’ is going to be short lived and in a few years some of us will be writing ‘What the hell happened’ articles with most people playing their favorite roll of ‘Monday Morning Quarterback.
And we have pretty simple data to support that.
If you look at Fortune 500 companies that were listed in 1955 and compare to 2015, only 61 of them still exist, the remainder either went bankrupt, merged or acquired, or fell off the list. . . SIXTY ONE.
Meanwhile, over at Wikipedia, we can find a very handy list of the largest private employers in the USA. 78th on that list is Apple – the largest company on the planet (as measured by Market Cap). This is a list of the top 15 companies by Market Cap – as of June 2015. Microsoft (3rd Market Cap, 53rd largest employer), Exxon (4th Market Cap, 85th largest employer). Remember a lot of those employees aren’t here in America, jobs were exported and as global corporations, a lot of functions reside beyond the national boundaries. Meanwhile, Google (Number 2 Market Cap), Facebook (Number 14 Market Cap), don’t even figure on the ‘large number of employees’ chart. The trend is clear, market caps are growing and dependence on people anywhere in the world to make that growth is reducing and in the USA, massively reducing.
Let’s look in more detail at the people. Back in 1955, the US population was 166 Million, which had just about doubled to 320 Million by the Summer of 2015, while our GDP multiplied around 40 fold.
Think about that, the largest companies in America, employing a fraction of the people that they used to, are delivering a 40-fold increase on GDP. No wonder their Market Caps are through the roof. BTW, about those people. The data source for the following is here.
1. General Motors
- Employees in 1955: 576,667
- Employees in 2010: 204,000
2. U.S. Steel
- Employees in 1955: 268,142
- Employees in 2010: 43,000
3. General Electric
- Employees in 1955: 210,151
- Employees in 2010: 304,000
- Employees in 1955: 167,813
- Employees in 2010: 58,000
5. Standard Oil
- Employees in 1955: 155,000
- Employees in 2010: 102,700
Bottom line, in 2010, the top 5 companies in the USA were employing an average of half the number of people that they did in 1955. Which in turn means that if the US labor pool is around 65% of the population (it varies – but I need a simple number), then.
- In 1955, the labor pool was approximately 65% of 166MM – or around 108MM.
- In 2015, the labor pool was approximately 65% of 320MM – or around 208MM.
… and in that same time period – the largest companies that we all grew up with have cut their labor needs by 50%.
The workforce grows by 100 million, requirements of largest private employees drops by 50% and we wonder what the problem is.
Look around you. Consider the attitude we each carry in us regarding ‘the unemployed’. Back in the UK, in 1981, Norman Tebbit was famous for his line;
I GREW UP IN THE 30S WITH AN UNEMPLOYED FATHER. HE DIDN’T RIOT; HE GOT ON HIS BIKE AND LOOKED FOR WORK AND HE KEPT LOOKING ’TIL HE FOUND IT.
But the 30s were very different. For a start it was 80 years ago, but that doesn’t stop people repeating variations of that line from time to time (sans the reference to the 30s). And I believe that some of this pattern stems from our ‘programming’. We believe that to be ‘valued’ in society, we need to have a job. We need to be working. We don’t like ‘spongers’. Men in particular often value themselves by the work they do.
But what if it was different? What if we really could listen and act on the advice of all those ‘self-help’ gurus, mentors and coaches, employment experts, successful business leaders … and follow our dreams and passion. Do exactly what we want, without being worried about how we would feed ourselves and our families each day. Wouldn’t that be cool?
We don’t of course (I know there are exceptions). But, until we work out how to take societal pressure off ourselves and work out how we ensure that people can live an honorable life and be respected with – and without – a job, I think we are in for a very rough ride.
 ‘inverted commas’, because Uber insists that they don’t actually ‘employ’ people – and in fact just made a $100 million settlement to ensure that didn’t change in just two U.S. states.
Author’s Note: My thanks to Hugh MacLeod, Jason Korma and the team at GapingVoid for permission to use the two Future of Work images in this article. The truth they contain is the challenge society faces.