Transcript for Future Jobs - Erik Brynjolfsson

Jim Fleming: So, your future self has woken up at home on this weekday in 2055. Time for work, right? What kind of work? With America's old industries sagging, what kind of jobs will we do? To tackle that question, Steve Paulson sat down with MIT Management Professor Erik Brynjolfsson.


Steve Paulson: Erik, what's shaping the future of our work lives?


Erik Brynjolfsson: Well, technology has always been changing our work lives, but lately, technology has been accelerating, especially digital technologies. That's caused some really good things. Productivity's at a record high, profits are at record highs, we're wealthier than we ever were before. It's also caused some not-so-good things. The person at the 50th percentile of income distribution is poorer than he or she was in the 1990s, and of course unemployment has been soaring as the share of people working has fallen.


Paulson: There have been predictions over the centuries even about what was supposed to happen with new technology. If you go back to electricity, or the first robots, or the invention of computers, there were all these people who had this very sort of rosy look that, "Oh, we're going to work less, but we'll still have good incomes." It does not seem to have worked out that way. The interesting thing is I don't see that kind of optimism anymore. Now I don't hear people saying, "Oh, with new technology, it's going to make our lives easier." What has changed?


Brynjolfsson: Well, the technology is doing what it's supposed to be doing, and that is, it is actually creating more wealth with less work. The problem is that our institutions, our skills, our organizations, aren't keeping up, so we're having a bigger and bigger mismatch between the technology and the rest of society. The result has been that this saving of work has not been evenly distributed. A small group of the population has really won the brunt of this unemployment. They're not working at all, even though they'd like to. A lot of other people are working as much as ever, in fact maybe too much. The big challenge before us is to reinvent our organizations and institutions to keep up with the radical changes in technology.


Paulson: What would that mean, to reinvent our institutions and organizations?


Brynjolfsson: Technology has always been creating jobs, it's always been destroying jobs. Two hundred years ago, 90 percent of Americans worked on farms. Then it was 42 percent in 1900, and now it's less than two percent. Along the way, we changed the kinds of work people did. All those people who aren't working on farms, they didn't simply become unemployed. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and Steve Jobs and others helped invent entirely new industries. Today, that isn't happening nearly as rapidly. Sure, there's a fair amount of entrepreneurship, but the companies that are being started today don't need as many people. We're going to have to think about ways that people can be employed in new industries, and also, we may have to start thinking about ways that people can share in the wealth even if they aren't working as much.


Paulson: Are you getting at a divide between those who work in the tech industries and those who don't? Basically, those who are the high tech workers, they're going to be sitting pretty. They'll be employed, they'll make money, but the others will kind of be left out?


Brynjolfsson: The first instinct is to look at it that way between tech and the rest of the economy. Actually, there's three sets of winners and losers. The first set is between high-skill workers and low- versus middle-skill workers. People with only a high school education today have seen their incomes just fall off a cliff. The second one is between capital owners and labor providers. As companies automate their operations, people who own capital equipment have captured a bigger and bigger share of the pie, and people who provide labor, who work in those factories, don't have as much to offer anymore. The third set of winners and losers is between what I would call superstars, very lucky or talented individuals who have some special skill, and really the rest of us. All three of those sets of winners and losers have been affected increasingly by technology, and the gap is growing between the winning set and the losing set. They all point in the same direction, which is greater income inequality and less job growth for the mass of people in the United States and other developed countries.


Paulson: I have to say this sounds like a fairly grim scenario for the future. Most people are going to be left out, and they're not going to have those high skills. It sounds like a fairly pessimistic future, doesn't it?


Brynjolfsson: It doesn't have to be, but certainly if we do nothing, if we just continue the way we're going right now, it is a pessimistic future for 90 percent of people or maybe even 99 percent of people. I guess that's a pretty grim scenario, but it doesn't have to be that way. We could reskill a lot of people, we could change the way capital is allocated, we could try to be more aggressive about encouraging entrepreneurship. What we need to do is invent those new industries like, say, Henry Ford and Steve Jobs did, that will employ people that have been, if you will, freed up, from the old tasks. We're not doing that fast enough.


Paulson: So what you're really talking about is the need to radically restructure our institutions, the way we think about work, the way we train people for productive lives. I guess I'm wondering if this is just sort of going to happen organically, or whether there needs to be a more concerted policy to make it happen. Is this the kind of thing that governments need to jump in on and spend billions of dollars to push us in the right direction?


Brynjolfsson: I wish I could be more optimistic about government being helpful in this process. So far, there seems to be real paralysis down there. I love visiting Silicon Valley, or visiting the labs here at MIT, or all over the country, people are doing very dynamic things with technology. But I'm disappointed whenever I go to Washington and see the paralysis and infighting there. Few if anybody down there are thinking about these kinds of issues the way they need to. We have to actively redesign it just as people did in the twentieth century when we moved from a farming, agrarian economy to an industrial economy. There was a tremendous amount of restructuring of governmented industry and regulation. Even our norms and our customs, how we ran organizations, were quite radically redesigned. What I'm calling for going forward is a grand challenge to reinvent education in organizations right alongside the way that technology has been reinvented.


Paulson: Who needs to take charge of this process?


Brynjolfsson: I think we all need to get involved. I don't think we can wait for government to do it. I don't think there's going to be a single shining entrepreneur who rallies it all. The way these things tend to happen is by thousands or millions of people working on different parts of the problem. Somebody picking out… working on the education reinvention, other people looking at ways to get crowd-source employment opportunities in a sharing economy, for instance.


Paulson: In this hour, we are asking people to project forward 50 years to imagine what a typical American's day-to-day life might look like. Here's the hard part here. If you were to imagine an optimistic scenario, walk us through what the workday of a typical American might be.


Brynjolfsson: You're right to point out that there are different scenarios. I think that is probably the most important point is that there's no single inevitable future. It's going to depend entirely on how we choose to take action in these areas. I do think there's a very optimistic scenario, and one that I hope is the more likely one. That is one where there's no more physical wants and needs. Robots can take care of the work needed to provide food, clothing, shelter, and basic physical needs for everyone on the planet. We're not that far away from that point. The interpersonal skills won't be automated, but that's fine. There'll be room for people to do that, and we'll spend more time on interacting with each other and engaging different kinds of leisure pursuits.


Paulson: This sounds pretty good. I'm going to be kicking back, painting landscapes and hanging out over coffee, talking with friends, and robots are going to be doing all the work. Not bad.


Brynjolfsson: I think it's a very realistic scenario, but it depends in large part on how we decide to allocate income and the wealth that's created. Another scenario is one where the same amount of wealth is created, but it's highly concentrated in not even the one percent, but the one percent of the one percent. We have to decide what kinds of tradeoffs we want between, say, creating more incentives for innovation and creating a more even distribution of income. That's a debate that we need to have, and I think that we will be having over the coming years.


Paulson: I'm going to ask you to be a little more specific about the pessimistic scenarios. Suppose we don't do this. Suppose we don't figure out ways to redistribute capital and wealth. What might the average day look like 50 years from now?


Brynjolfsson: I see two broad kinds of pessimistic scenarios. The first one is the one that's an economic pessimism, where there's a tremendous amount of inequality. It's quite possible that the mass of people, more than 50 percent, more than 90 percent of people, will not be able to come up with anything that they can do that will create enough value to make for a living wage. They could still be very, very angry, and create a lot of destruction. I could easily see growing unrest and disorder. It's happened before, and there's no reason that it wouldn't happen again. It's in the interest of all of us to think about ways of heading that off.


Paulson: That is great. Thank you so much, this is fascinating.


Brynjolfsson: My pleasure, and I hope we end up in that happy scenario we discussed.


Paulson: Me too.


Fleming: Erik Brynjolfsson is a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management. His most recent book is called, "Wired for Innovation, How Information Technology is Reshaping the Economy." How are you shaping our common future? Let us know, through Facebook, or Twitter, or Handle's App TT Book One.

Comments for this interview

Can we quite believing corporate hype (Lorenzo Kristov, 08/02/2013 - 8:57pm)

I found this guest's vision of a supposedly "positive" future where robots do all the work and people have more leisure to do whatever they want absolutely appalling. A couple specifics:
(1) This is the same tired old promise we've been fed by the captains of industry for over a century, and it has not come to pass. Quite the opposite, industrialization appears to have hit the limit of its usefulness. It is now destroying our earthly habitat and squeezing the life out of 99% of the population as the previous commenter noted.
(2) The vision of no work and all leisure is NOT a positive vision. Quite the contrary: dedicated, socially useful work gives life meaning and is essential for our individual and societal well being. Whether the work is producing our food, caring our neighborhoods, providing physical and mental care to those in need, educating others of all ages, making music and art. People who elevate leisure as a good to be pursued know nothing about what is truly valuable in life. This notion of work versus leisure needs to be composted immediately.
(3) The idea of robots doing all the work is just another variation of slavery. We've been taught to think of slavery in the narrowest terms - those Africans who were brought to the American colonies and then later freed by Lincoln. We need to expand our concept to see that having someone else take care of the necessities of our lives so we can go play golf or whatever is a continuation of the slavery mentality. Our dependence on machines running on fossil fuels is another form of slavery - and it's quite clear we are paying a huge price for abusing that particular slave - just as we are paying a huge price for the enslavement of Africans, in the form of ineradicable racism in our culture.
In the end it comes down to taking responsibility for our lives and our communities by our willingness to deal with the fundamental physicality of our bodies and our kinship with and dependence on the earth. Mr MIT's vision of the 'positive' future is going in a totally wrong direction.

Future Jobs (Margaret, 07/14/2013 - 10:29pm)

I live in Silicon Valley, and the future of under employment that Erik Brynjolfsson talked about is already happening here. If you are not one of the fortunate tech workers at places like Google, Facebook, or Apple, it's almost impossible to live here. My husband and I both have mid-level jobs and yet can barely afford to rent within 20 miles of my office (fortunately he works from home.) If rents go up any higher (buy a home here? That's so impossible that I don't even dream of it!), we'll have to leave the area or commute for hours each day.

I don not see how this center can hold. If the 99% can barely afford to live, who will buy the junk that the 1% is making?


As a follow up to my earlier comment... (Frank Korb, 07/13/2013 - 6:35pm)

There is conversation about WHERE this all needs to happen... Government... education... I think, believe, we need to move away from teaching to the tests and begin, make more of the problem solving end of things. It is not dates and formulas so much as it is finding the solutions, making the mistakes, trying and trying again until the solutions to the challenges are found. As a teacher, it is my job to help our students work through the challenges, provide the challenges, but not necessarily to be the one pouring the information into their minds. I believe in the continued positive support to fail and fail and fail until that solution is found. Formative and formative evaluations, promoting reflection and thought, collaboration and problem solving... Innovation and Creativity are some of the bedrock of what my students are faced with as they develop up through my classes.


Innovation and Curiosity as a Skill (Frank Korb, 07/13/2013 - 4:56pm)

I had a limited Twitter conversation about innovation and curiosity as being a skill that needed to be taught. An arguer came up against the thought that they were necessary to develop, but were not necessarily "skills." This article helped me to get a better grasp - a stronger foothold in the argument that they WERE INDEED skills. Thank you Steve and Erik!

Frank Korb