Eduardo Porter, economics reporter at The New York Times, and ILR Dean Alex Colvin discuss how technology, service sector jobs and Universal Basic Income could affect the future of work.
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Julie Greco 0:04
Work is all around us. It defines us. The future of work impacts nearly every person on our planet, and the ILR School at Cornell University is influencing policy and practice around the world. In this episode of "Work! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment, Dean Alex Colvin speaks with Eduardo Porter, economics reporter at the New York Times.
Alex Colvin 0:30
Thanks for joining us today on the podcast. In our podcast we've been talking a lot about issues around the future of work, how the economy has been changing, the different demographics of the labor force, and how that's all changing what things are like going forward. It seems that there's been a real explosion of concern and discussion around these issues the archetypal truck driver is going to be replaced by the self driving truck or the Uber driver which the new kind of job but maybe that's going to be replaced too by the self driving car. And now we've got Andrew Yang seemed to build this pretty successful presidential campaign around this issue and advocating for a universal basic income as a solution. But at the same time there's always this question of, is this really going to be different than the past, right? We had the horse and buggy disappear but then the auto industry replaced it so we had new kinds of jobs. And you've written a little about this industry, about this issue, what's your take these days on it? Have we gone too far in our panic about the future of work or is this a legitimate concern?
Eduardo Porter 1:38
It's hard to say when it's too far. So to be sure, we've gone through technological periods of technological disruption in the workforce for hundreds of years. This fear has been with us for hundreds of years, since you know you had steam powered loons enter the workforce. And, and, to be sure these technological dislocations have hurt some sets of workers have replaced them have taken away their jobs. But so far, the economy has always been able to produce more jobs. As you know, incomes from the technological disruption increase, you know as as tech increases productivity and incomes of workers as you know this has created demand for new products and services and actually making these new products and services has created new jobs, and you have kind of a felicitous rise of wages as well as rise of productivity and a bunch of new jobs. And so, so far, the fears have been unfounded I think, on average. But there's always well what if this time is different thing. Right. And there's no like law of nature that says that that can't happen that we can't have a moment where you know this kind of felicitous cycle stops and we get something a little more grim. And the evidence out there if you look at the data suggests, you know, that maybe this is grimmer, That the reality of the last, whatever 40 years or maybe, maybe not that long maybe 20 years doesn't quite bear out this yes we're all moving up higher productivity, higher wages. We're in fact seeing pretty, a lot of wage stagnation, we're seeing that a lot of the jobs that were dislocated from manufacturing have have, there has been a lot of new jobs appear but they have been in fairly low productivity low pay service sector jobs. Right. And so we're not really seeing this massive kind of like technological revolution that lifts everybody's boat. So, you know, looking forward, it's not crazy to think, Well, you know, this time does look different. And so maybe we should be afraid.
Alex Colvin 4:15
Yeah, I mean I think sometimes we have too much in our head this image of artificial intelligence from the Terminator movies or Data the Android from Star Trek, and that everything is going to disappear. That that seems a little more distant. Yeah. But, but at the same time, you know, maybe we get a better automated sewing machine and all these countries that have huge numbers of workers who are sewing our jeans and making our shoes, you know maybe we can have the automated robots that can make those just like we have robots and car factories today that have displaced a lot of auto workers. Right, so, you know, there could be that kind of big change in particular sectors coming, and then when we are going to have to adjust I think. I mean you raised the point about the service sector, right, that there are jobs there those kind of personal care jobs, but right now they're they're not great jobs. Yeah. I mean, you think of like the nursing home jobs, yeah is the one always in my head, right? It doesn't seem like we're close to automating those. But we sure can make those a lot better jobs.
Eduardo Porter 5:20
Yeah, no, for sure. I mean, and there's a lot of thoughts in this question but just to hit that that last point you made. Yeah, we're going to create a lot of service sector jobs and specifically we're going to create a lot of home health, personal care aides. We're going to generate hundreds of thousands of those jobs. So maybe I mean if thinking if you're thinking in terms of what the policy challenge is one one avenue to explore, is how to make those jobs higher productivity more skilled better paid. And so that so that you know the service economy can also help lift, you know, middle class incomes.
Alex Colvin 6:01
Yeah, so maybe, it strikes me one of the more interesting proposals to really emerge in this cycle isn't just the universal basic income but things like sectoral bargaining. Something like the, what's happened with a Fight for 15 campaign trying to raise wages in the fast food restaurant industry. That there is a real strain in some of these industries, healthcare the service sector restaurants, where wages haven't been great, the working conditions have been pretty rough. And it seems like we don't have a policy focused on those jobs yet.
Eduardo Porter 6:39
Yeah, I mean, I agree with you that we need something to increase worker voice and and you know give workers more leverage at the bargaining table with bosses that's for sure, regardless of what's happening in the technological sphere. I think we've had an erosion of worker voice for decades now. And that's clearly playing a role in wage stagnation. Then, but then you know you have to say, but I would say that that's kind of like independent and technological change. Yeah, I'm the, the, the other policy solutions that are thrown out there, you know I'm gonna, especially, specifically Yang's idea of a universal basic income and it's not just his everybody in Silicon Valley thinks that, you know, the next great thing. I think that that's worthy of consideration. I am very skeptical of the frame coming out of the tech sector that since there's going to be no jobs in the future we need some massive redistribution scheme of the scale of UBI to actually you know move money around. I don't really buy that. I mean I think we're, we still have lots of jobs and the question is more about the quality and the pay and the productivity of those jobs than that and I'm not sure that we should be thinking of a solution for a society where there is no you know paid in point. Maybe UBI is something to be thought of okay let's think of a world where there are lots of kind of crummy jobs. Yeah. Does UBI have a role there? And I'm still skeptical because it requires a ton of money and and the US has never been particularly generous in building vast safety net programs. So, if you consider this one is probably bigger than anything that we've ever done on the scale of social security, I mean, my guess is that running that for the American political system is going to be a losing proposition.
Alex Colvin 8:42
And Americans always had that great idea of valuing work right. I don't see outside of Silicon Valley, a lot of people saying, I wish I could just sit around and be on UBI right? They're saying you know I'd like a job and a good job. You know, the overworked American is still, you know, something that that we tend to be we tend to not want to take vacations, you know. Interestingly, one of the things you've written about is the impact of the aging society. And that's something that's been interesting in the world of work that people are actually working longer now we're seeing more people working into their 60s and 70s and and that's changing things at the same time, right. The 65 retirement seems to have faded in many areas. Yeah.
Eduardo Porter 9:29
Yeah, well they're I think that's a very interesting way to think about this I mean to add to this conversation is how the demography is going to interact with technology and automation. So you know you can make the argument that hey we better have lots of robots that take jobs because people are going to be too old to hold jobs. Yeah, you know and and we're gonna need a lot more automation in order to keep the economy humming. And I think that's that's a reasonable proposition. I mean, what, what how much automation and so on that's, I don't know, but I do think that that kind of tempers the fear that oh my gosh automation is going to come out and wipe out the economy as we know it. I what I mean one of the reasons I'm skeptical of that argument because a) what you just pointed out, aging, I think calls for more automation, and b) these forecasts of you know that we're all going to go the way of Leontief's horse and be turned into glue because robots will have all the jobs that we used to do are vastly I think exaggerate technology's capabilities and also society's appetite for implementing these technologies. So you mentioned those trucks. We've been saying trucks are going to be automated for like 10 years now and they haven't. And my guess is that full automation of the trucking fleet, let alone the passenger car fleet is way in the future, if ever, and that's not because of tech, I mean, there's a technological challenges but there's also the societal challenge. People are going to be uncomfortable with driving when half the fleet on the street is a robot. You know, what are going to be the legal consequences of when a robot runs somebody over? Will we have to redesign roads to make them more predictable so robots can navigate them eat more easily. All these things that are not just about the technological capability, but how society arranges around the this technological capability are I think abstracted away by the folks in Silicon Valley, but they're very important and I think that they're going to really slow down the implementation of a lot of these things, even if these things are ready for the races which is questionable.
Alex Colvin 9:29
Yeah, it's interesting the reaction around the Boeing crisis around the 737 Max, that people, occasionally make these comments 'oh planes fly themselves' right which which we know isn't really true. Nobody wants to get into a plane without those two trained pilots there. But now we're seeing with these disasters that sometimes the technology does go wrong, and and the public doesn't have the trust right these systems are building up because people aren't going to get on them until they're absolutely sure this technology's not going to not going to cause a disaster.
Eduardo Porter 12:20
Yeah, and in fact our tolerance is extremely is very different if we're talking about automata or people. So say, if one of Google's cars you know plows into a bunch of schoolchildren that's kind of like that's gonna put back out of you know self driving cars by a couple of decades. We're gonna freak out. But if it's a person who you know who's distracted and plows into a bunch of schoolchildren, we're gonna say 'oh gosh yeah human error, you know, bad guy' and then we'll move on.
Alex Colvin 12:47
Yeah, yeah, yeah I think one of the things we sometimes underestimate in kind of our economic models is just the reality people react in kind of different, different ways emotionally to to events and that changes things. Well thanks very much Eduardo. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and thanks again.
Eduardo Porter 13:09
Thanks a million Alex. This was really interesting.
Julie Greco 13:13
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