Here’s a great video from TED talking about abundance.
We live in a time of abundance. For the vast majority of recorded history, humans have had to toil long hours just to feed, cloth and shelter themselves. It was only recently that our standard of living has increased to the point where most of us don’t worry about those things on a day to day basis. In fact, the average person in the US today has a longer life expectancy than a person living 50 years ago. That same person has direct access to more information at any one time than the President of the United States had access to as little as 30 years ago. Most importantly though, our tools are rapidly evolving. We have been using tools since the dawn of history but an iPhone is a long way removed from a sharpened stick.
Humans are distinguished by our use of tools. As I have observed previously, our technology’s most profound effect is by empowering creative individuals and enhancing their capabilities. This allows a person in Germany for example to direct the operation of a multinational company in near realtime. It allows an airplane like the Boeing 787 to be designed by engineers around the world, working 24 hours a day. When one group goes home, the next group in entering their own offices. This is what is known as globalization.
These tools allow a single person to get more done, which we say increases their productivity. 100 years ago it took a whole crew of people to plant a field; today it can be done by a single person using a tractor and other farm equipment. What are the implications of all of this on society?
Let’s assume that to provide food, clothing and shelter for a single person takes X amount of resources. This can vary of course based on the standard of living. 1000 years ago a person was lucky if they could have a very basic standard of living by working all day. Today many people can achieve a decent standard of living in just a few days a week of working. Still, let’s assume everyone needs X resources. These resources take a certain amount of work to create.
If you multiply all the people in the world with the amount of work required to sustain them you will come up with a sum of how much work the world needs for a basic standard of living. With me so far? Ok good.
While a person can only do so much work per day technology is increasing that amount. Therefore each person can produce more work for each unit of time.
If the rate of productivity is going up faster than the standard of living consuming it, then you need less people to produce the same amount of work. I look at economics as kind of a force of nature so I believe there would be several possible reactions to this surplus of work.
In a full employment society, population growth would require a steadily increasing work total. This means more demand for workers, thus driving up wages. However, the government can intervene with regulation to make it more expensive to hire workers. In this case, you want as few workers as possible and thus need to get more productivity out of them. Technology enables that.
This is showing in the labor market in the US. In the last year over 75% of the jobs created were part time and many many full time jobs are being converted to part time. This trend will only accelerate if the Oxford report is correct. (see Report: 45% of Jobs Can Be Replaced By Computers In 20 Years )
Boom goes the jobs
The sorts of jobs that are being automated are the ones that can be standardized. If you can write a detailed description of your job each day ahead of time then a computer or robot will be able to do it eventually. My job involves computer programming so it varies each day and requires a lot of creativity and adaptability. Therefore it will be safe for a while.
Imagine building a house. Right now it takes an architect plus lots of workers to build it. Eventually that architect will be able to use a huge 3d printer and a team of robots to do it instead. Boom, lots of jobs just disappeared.
A trucking company might be just a person who starts it plus a fleet of self driving trucks. These trucks would be equipped with robots to load and unload them. Boom, lots of jobs just disappeared.
In the military right now, Apache attack helicopters can control drones in the airspace around them. That’s one crew of two controlling multiple platforms. Boom, more jobs disappeared (and probably some tanks).
There are lots of examples of jobs disappearing and they won’t be coming back.
Implications for Education
So what does all this mean for education? Right now schools are creating a standardized product (and with Common Core this is getting worse). This makes them easily inserted into production lines but those sorts of jobs are going away. In order to stand out in a standardized, globalized world you have to be increasingly non standard. The attributes of successful people in the future will be creativity, curiosity, a strong work ethic, and adaptability. We will switch careers often and be constantly learning. This is the opposite of the purpose of mass education now which is to create docile, complaint workers.
The current system is doomed. It’s not a question of adaptation because the purpose of the mass standardized education is obsolete. It’s like trying to drill a hole with a hammer. Doesn’t matter how you try it, it’s the wrong tool for the job.
I think that people will start working less and therefore have more time for other things. Homeschooling will really take off along with other alternate methods of learning like apprenticeships simply because people will have more free time. Time will become a variable in learning rather than a constant.
I keep coming back to Economics. School is a function of society and society is driven by economics. Economics is the sum total of individuals doing what is in their own self interest. Government can interfere (see When Innovation is Stifled ) but in the end Economics wins every time. It will be interesting to watch the rapid changes heading our way and get my new son ready to face this uncertain world.
I came across this great article just now that talks about this issue as well!