"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." I wonder, because of the digital revolution, if many of us might be feeling like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz after the tornado.
Our world has changed and the economy that once created the jobs that let us have the quality of life we enjoyed is gone, disrupted by the digital revolution. Now, there is a disconnect between the skills of the past and those needed for today's digital world. Those institutions we created that helped us in past economies have become outdated — education, jobs, health and workplace policies and regulations.
The loss of jobs today was not simply caused by what we once thought, a lagging economy or outsourcing to other nations, rather it's been mainly technology that has destroyed many old jobs and created new ones. Unlike past eras when as productivity in America grew, so did jobs; now, we have a growing economy and fewer jobs. Technology lets businesses do more with fewer workers. Jobs such as bank tellers and office clerks have been replaced with ATMs and on line deposits. Online purchasing has eliminated sales jobs, and even call center jobs done overseas have now been digitized.
Even a college education is no longer an assurance of a good paying job. Now there are the highly skilled jobs that require postgraduate education, and then there are all the others. Some attorney functions can be done by technology as well as some medical diagnostic procedures done by robots. More of today's jobs are being done by machines and computers, which raises the question: What jobs will be left for humans? According to MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's new book, "Race Against The Machine," those jobs that are complementary to computers such as data scientists and computer programmers will be in demand, as well as those jobs that require empathy, relationships and sensory perception.
New technology always creates a cultural lag where institutions and people are slow to adjust to change. Technology has disrupted our economy where we once believed a rising tide lifted all boats. Now we have increased productivity, fewer jobs and job security based only on what added value a worker brings to the organization. Our schools are still preparing students for past eras, as is our commerce regulatory environment. At a time when innovation and creativity are needed for businesses to compete in the global marketplace, they are burdened with duplicative and outdated regulations.
Technology has created a divided society based on income, where those who are doing well seem to have less empathy for those who are struggling and see no need to change. We are now seeing where machines are taking over jobs done by humans, and face the reality there may be fewer jobs for humans.
We need to renew our institutions for the new economy, starting with our schools, business and employment regulatory environment. Higher education is vital in advancing research and preparing students with the knowledge and innovative skills for the digital economy.
While technology has improved our lives, professors Brynjolfsson and McAfee have raised the questions of how are we going to distribute the benefits of this abundant economy; and the harder questions: What is a meaningful life going to look like? Where will dignity and self worth come from in the 21st century if not from a job?
Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.
A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at [email protected]