Bill Gates on the Future of Employment (It's Not Pretty)
With all of his good works, Bill Gates's recent comments about the future of employment are enough to spark fear in the hearts of anyone who depends on a salary to keep the lights on and food on the table.
The famed Microsoft co-founder was recently quoted by Business Insider as saying: "Software substitution, whether it's for drivers or waiters or nurses...it's progressing.... Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill sets... Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don't think people have that in their mental model."
Business Insider calls this a "gloomy scenario" and includes a link to a list of jobs that will likely be going away due to technology in the next 20 years. At the top of the list, with 99 percent certainty? Telemarketers. I know you're crushed because that's your dream job. Accountants and auditors come next, at 94 percent, and retail sales people have a 92 percent probability of finding themselves out of work.
Now before you go taking that deep sigh of relief, dear entrepreneurs, since your job--that is creating businesses--would seem to be safe, know that you won't be unscathed. While your position may be safe, your employment needs won't be. This seemingly bleak future may wind up being cheaper for entrepreneurs who can avoid paying for things like health insurance and office space to accommodate their work force. But the well of innovative ideas that often come from employees would go dry. If that doesn't scare you, it should.
But Gates isn't the killjoy he has been made out to be.
The Not-So-Awful Upshot
Technology may take away jobs, but there are benefits too. Technology frees me up to do this job, rather than, say, household chores. My grandmother didn't have time to sit down and write when she was raising children because she had to wash dishes by hand, run her laundry through a wringer washing machine, and make meals from scratch--including baby formula. (It wasn't "scientific" to breastfeed when her babies were little, it was a necessity.)
In my technologically advanced household, the washing machine washes most of the clothes, dinner is in the Crockpot, and my beloved Roomba vacuums my floors. As a result? I can write this article. (My grandmother did in fact write a book after her children were raised, and she had a computer on which to write it.)
Yes, without technology, the job of Internet blogger wouldn't exist. And that's the problem with "bleak future" quotes about jobs going away. Yes, we can predict what jobs are going, but can we predict what jobs are coming?
To some extent, yes, of course. We can predict that if software is taking over, we'll need people to write that software, and people to think up what software should be written. But is that all? When the washing machine was invented, did the inventor say, "In the future, because of this, more women will be able to work outside the home for pay!"?
Before the advent of the iPhone, did we have any idea of how many people would be employed producing apps for smart phones and tablets? Nope. What other jobs will exist depends largely on what the workers of today dream up. And right now, software still lacks the creativity that people have. (Note, one of the predicted jobs to go away is technical writer, not comedy writer.)
What Can You Do?
Now, like Bill Gates, I am actually concerned about people at the low end of the economic spectrum. It's often the case that the less skill a job requires, the more likely it is to be automated. While it may sound awesome to get rid of these lower-skilled jobs, jobs that don't require intense training often provide real world training about how to work in the first place. These are the positions in which we learn the importance of showing up, getting along with co-workers, and working hard.
The way, of course, to ameliorate these problems is not to panic and try to stop technology but to figure out a way to prepare our young people for jobs at a higher level--or entrepreneurship.
Overall, don't panic. People are still a company's best and most important asset.
SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist
Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.