Keen and Zittrain’s competing realities can co-exist, but is technology really the issue?
At the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, Andrew Keen and Jonathan Zittrain debate over whether the rise of technology is creating or replacing good jobs. Are there more quality opportunities for the average worker to find employment, or are workers being replaced by technology, leaving them with no option but to take on more menial work for lower pay while a few companies collect the profit? Zittrain argued the more optimistic point, while Keen could not find a silver lining.
I found the debate fascinating because, though Keen and Zittrain seemed to see two contrasting realities, it seems to me that both realities exist simultaneously. Through the use of emerging technology, some people are able to find new ways to earn money that better fit their lifestyles. At the same time, other people are losing their jobs to an automated process. In some areas, people have FREE access to resources that they would have previously paid money for, but the people who provided those services for a fee have lost their customers… but those services are also generating new and different jobs… but are the new jobs enough to replace those that were lost?
Before writing this post I decided that I needed to see some numbers. I looked at America’s most recent employment numbers, charts showing the rising and falling of industries, and reports on which industries are hiring college grads. Service-providing industries are rapidly growing (example, health care) while labor industries are shrinking (example, mining). As of this very moment in history, according to the couple reliable sources that I dug up in a short amount of time, job prospects are becoming more numerous, though in different industries than before.
Taking a step back, I realize that I am not an economist, and that this is a very complicated field of study. The reports I found don’t speak to quality of the jobs being created in comparison to the quality of the jobs being lost. Another factor that isn’t shown in the data I found is the amount of training needed for the new jobs. Are the jobs being added accessible to the unemployed?
Working at a technical college I hear a lot about the skills gap, where the unemployed population lacks the skill level to fill open positions. I also just learned of the term “grey collar worker” used to describe a highly educated individual who can only find lower skilled employment, like my younger sister who has a four-year degree in international relations, yet she has only found employment doing clerical office work. These two realities exist at once! There aren’t enough skilled workers to fill the open positions AND there aren’t enough open positions for the skilled workers! How can this be?!
Debators keep bringing up the labor market in the 1950s as an example of a time when the middle class flourished, people could find good moderately skilled careers that would allow them to provide for their families and send their kids to college. However, now that all of their kids have gone to college to get highly skilled training, some industries are hurting for skilled labor while others are saturated. Is this really solely a technology issue?
Bringing this back around to the debate between Keen and Zittrain, Keen argues that technology is taking the lower skilled jobs, leaving a large population unable to find quality work and Zittrain argues that there are emerging areas and systems of employment that might provide balance to this economic shift. My quick research does seem to show that employment is on the rise, though the industries who are hiring are shifting, backing up Zittrain’s point of view. After taking in all of this information, I am left with the following conclusions:
- There is a problem in employment, but though technology definitely plays a role, it is only part of a much larger issue.
- Our culture, as Keen points out, is shifting from an industrial economy to a digital economy at an unprecedented rate. This results in some industries being left in the dust while there are few constraints on the new guys (Google is brought up over and over), allowing them free reign to dominate the field, yielding profits to a lucky few.
- Economic theory and public policy are straining to keep up with the changes in the market. Zittrain and Keen bring up Uber’s legal issues as an example. Are the drivers employees or contractors? What percentage of the profit can Uber collect? Does Uber have to provide benefits to it’s workers?
- Meanwhile, there are either too many or too few skilled workers, depending on the industry.
The rapidly shifting job market in this new digital economy is leaving a lot of people playing catch up. Some are lucky enough to ride the wave, while others are struggling to stay afloat. Is technology the problem, or is the issue more deeply rooted in our society’s cultural expectations and policies that are still trying to catch up with rapid change? Keen’s arguments were all on point, but other than decrying the state of things, I didn’t see him offering any possible paths forward. The optimist, Zittrain, at least mentioned that we must face these issues head on, examine policy, change our expectations and move forward.
I look forward to hearing where my classmates stand on this issue. I know this is a huge issue where politics and values come into play, and I want to hear from other opinions. I am often surprised to find so much resistance from my classmates when I take a pro-technology stance. The way I see it, the momentum pushing our society towards a more digital age is a fact. We have the choice to meet it head on, embrace it and work out the kinks… or to dig in our heels and get passed over. Just the fact that the individuals taking this class are mostly professionals who are investing our time and money into graduate-level professional development means that we are all being affected by this economic shift, and we are moving forward! Tell me your thoughts!
United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Industry employment and output projections to 2022, December 2013
Michigan State University, Collegiate Employment Research Institute, Recruiting Trends Report Briefs 2015-16
United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Employment Situation – September 2015, released October 2, 2015