Friday, September 23, 2011

Two Types of People: Busy and Not Busy

For a while now I have used expressions like "Busy, but it is better than the alternative." when asked the ubiquitous "How are you?" With unemployment the way it is I think that many people can identify with that. I have also mentioned to people that I view being overly busy as the plague of modern life. Of course, not everyone is overly busy. There are plenty of people who have nothing to do but wish that they did.

This morning I had a thought which took me back to this article at Forbes.
The article is remarkably brutal in its honesty. It describes that people aren't being hired for jobs because they aren't needed. They aren't needed, because there are other options, many of which are based on technology. It goes on to say that you will get hired if you can demonstrate an advantage over those alternatives. To get hired, you have to be able to do something the software/automation/offshoring can't.

How do these things link together? I see two links. Being better than the competition, in many fields, requires a lot of effort. One of the big advantages of computers is that they can work constantly. They don't need to sleep or eat. They don't get sick. They also don't get bored or distracted. Even if you can do something that the computer hasn't mastered, they have changed the work environment so that now you can, and are expected to, be working virtually all the time. If you do something the computer can compete in, you definitely can't give it the advantage of working longer hours.

The second link is that computers and automation are capable of taking over many different tasks. When they do, they make the skills for that task nearly obsolete for humans. Humans that have those skills need to try to retrain to something else. That's a problem because retraining humans is a fairly slow process. This can put the skills that aren't yet automated in very high demand, and increase the odds of shortages in those areas. Lack of people with competitive skills means the few have to do everything. Hence, they work more time than they might otherwise want to.

Of course, if the only skills you have become automatable and you don't push down the retraining path, for one reason or another, you fall into a group that has virtually nothing to do. At least not anything productive. There are things that can keep you from being completely bored. You can play games and the machines can take on the role of entertaining you, but each day you become less and less likely to find yourself needed for productive work as the bar of automation moves steadily upward.

Hence, we move toward a world where there are only two types of people. There are the employed who are incredibly busy and who can barely stay on top of their tasks, and the unemployed who lack much of anything to do and are likely to be unable to change that.