George Orwell and Aldous Huxley envisioned nightmarish worlds, which were the result of 20th century trends. Now American economist Tyler Cowan has produced a vision of the dystopian world of work in this century. Richard Reeves writes:
It might be called "Brave New World 3.0."—a new projection of a world of machine-driven alphas and lesser beings, from betas to epsilons. The book is a smart and cruel projection of the world Cowen sees coming. In fact, he thinks it is already here.
It's not a vision which should make anyone comfortable:
What will that work be like? What obligations and rights will employers and have employees have? Or what do the wealthy and accomplished alphas owe to everybody else and vice versa?
"Workers," he writes, "more and more will come to be classified in two categories. The key questions will be, Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are the computers helping people in China and India compete against you?"
Cowen dutifully recounts the statistics that describe work and compensation in our society: high school and college graduates, including those with master’s degrees, are earning from 5 to 20 percent less in constant dollars than they did only 10 years ago. That is, if they can find work. Then he goes on to guess how much worse it will get.
He writes of a "hyper-meritocracy," in which those who can interface with the magical machines of our time—today’s iPhone is more powerful than the world’s largest computers were in 1985—will be quickly and fabulously rich and useful. That would be, he estimates, 10 to 15 percent of the population. The other 85 percent will find some servant-like work making the high-earners feel better about themselves—masseurs, chefs, drivers, gardeners, whatever.
If it all seems far fetched, consider the job market which young workers face. CNBC reported in 2010 that:
Global youth unemployment has hit a record high following the financial crisis and is likely to get worse later this year, the International Labor Organization (ILO) said Thursday.
The report from the ILO says 81 million out of 630 million 15-24 year olds where unemployed at the end of 2009, some 7.8 million more than at the end of 2007.
The ILO warned these trends will have "significant consequences for young people as upcoming cohorts of new entrants join the ranks of the already unemployed."
Cowan predicts that:
The values of the wealthy class will become more influential. It is their values that will shape public discourse. We’ll pay for as much of a welfare state as we can afford to, and then no more.
Keep that in mind the next time Stephen Harper tells you that he will bravely lead you into the future.