LONDON — Andrew McAfee, director of MIT’s Center for Digital Business, argued Thursday that technological advances of the last few decades have significantly contributed to global stagnation of wages and lack of significant job growth.
McAfee, co-author of The Second Machine Age, was speaking at The WorldPost Future of Work Conference. He was followed by a panel that included David Gergen, co-director of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership and a senior analyst at CNN.
McAfee said that while other factors –- such as globalization and the rise of monopoly capitalism –- have hit jobs and wages hard, technological progress since the computer revolution in the 1980s has been the biggest blow. In particular, he said, information technology, automation and artificial intelligence are going to continue to replace many human jobs. And while technological progress is “the best economic news on the planet” because it creates abundance, he said, there’s no guarantee that that abundance will be shared fairly.
Gergen shared McAfee’s concern about the future of jobs. He cited an estimate that nearly half (47 percent) of American jobs are likely to be automated within the next two decades, according to 2013 report from the Oxford Martin School’s Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology.
What to do about this projected shrinking of well-paid jobs? McAfee said we should improve what he calls our E-I-E-I-O’s: education, infrastructure, entrepreneurship, immigration (by removing barriers) and original research (as private funding is inadequate). Gergen agreed with that plan but said that while he wants government to do more, he shares the public’s pessimism about what governments can actually do, particularly in the U.S.
In the interim, Gergen suggested, we should support people who are finding ways to successfully adapt to technological disruption. Here, in Gergen’s words, are three ways he proposed we can “unleash human creativity … from the bottom up, not top down”:
1. Support freelancers and entrepreneurs.
Within the U.S. today, a third of our workforce are now freelancers. And that number’s going up rapidly. By 2020, it’s expected to be 40 percent. And yet, they’re being held back by government regulation. There’s a lot of confusion in the U.S., for example, about whether someone working as a contractor for a company is, for tax purposes, an independent contractor or an employee. In addition, there are a lot of people who will figure out how to create their own jobs if we give them the opportunity.
2. Support nonprofit-profit hybrids.
We’re seeing more and more of what’s called a hybrid organization or corporation. They’re doing social good but they have also found a way to create a market or stream of income to support themselves. They’re neither pure nonprofit or for-profit –- they’re hybrids.
I think these organizations are the wave of the future. And it’s very important that we have organizations outside of government that address social issues and create a civil society. And yet, the tax laws and other regulations that apply to these hybrids can hold them back. Instead, we ought to be encouraging them. People want to work for places that are doing good for the world. This may be a really important new form of work.
3. Support women entrepreneurs.
More than half of college graduates in nearly two-thirds of the Middle East are women, but only 20 percent of the workforce is women. They’ve been marginalized by society but there are some women now who are willing to step forward. They are forming their own small businesses and are creating jobs. It’s a bright spot in the Middle East, in a place that’s is so roiled by trouble.
We need to unleash the power of those women. It’s been estimated by the World Bank that if women had the same participation rate in Egypt as men, the economy there would grow by a third. In Saudi Arabia, where they’re forbidden to go outside alone, technology is allowing women to work out of their homes.
These examples are micro but they unleash creativity, and we don’t always need to look to government and wait and complain. Let’s get going on some of the solutions that are at hand.
Gergen’s comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.