In their recent book “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,” MIT Sloan business school scientists Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson try to predict what civilization will look like as technology starts replacing an ever-increasing number of tasks usually done by humans.
In a new post on Harvard Business Review, McAfee says he recently experienced a direct example of how this transformation has already begun: an Uber trip.
In general, McAfee says, Uber is amazing. But the experience of his driver shows we have entered a mostly uncharted phase of economic history:
My driver said he’d been with Uber ever since he’d graduated from his master’s program in IT project management last year. This profession was, according to him, going through hard times. In the wake of the great recession steady jobs had been replaced by short-term contracts, and there weren’t even a lot of these to be had. As a result he was now competing against much more experienced people for each new gig that came up, and he hadn’t had a lot of success since graduating.
So to cover his monthly fixed costs of student loan payments (on more than $100k in debt), rent, and healthcare he was driving for Uber. A lot. He estimated that he spent more than 60 hours a week behind the wheel. This allowed him to pay his bills, but not to build up any real savings.
To which I say good for him, and for Uber. This is a guy who could be sitting around waiting for the dream job he’d gone to school for, collecting unemployment, defaulting on his loans, and/or dropping out of the labor force for good. Instead, he was working hard at a job that was available.
He goes on to recount a subsequent conversation with futurist Ray Kurzweil on the subject of what the rise of Uber will mean for everyone else:
As far as I can tell [Kurzweil] thinks that there are no real challenges accompanying today’s rapid tech progress. He predicted that there will be plenty of jobs, and that they’ll be fulfilling ones that allow people to pursue their passions. Well, my driver couldn’t find work doing what he went to school for, and he didn’t describe driving people around as his passion. My read of the evidence is that good, secure, fulfilling jobs are declining as we head deeper into the second machine age, not spreading throughout the economy.
There may not be much regulators can do, McAfee says, but new policies will have to focus on education, taxes and the social safety net.
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