June 26, 2014
Why technology is going to destroy middle class professionsPosted in Irish Independent · 94 comments ·
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me”.
This beautifully poetic denunciation of the cowardice of the German intellectual class in the Nazi period was penned by Pastor Martin Neimoller, who was initially a supporter of Hitler but became disillusioned early on, created an opposition to Hitler amongst German clergy and spent the war in Dachau.
At its root, this notion of not speaking up for others can be applied in all sorts of situations even situations, including some that are much less terrifying than the Nazi persecution.
Today I am going to talk about the nature of work in the years ahead. This is a critical question and it’s the one that so many Irish parents are faced with when advising their children what to do in life. We often think the jobs that paid well in our day or in our parents’ day are still the ones to go for. But is this the case? And what if many of these jobs haven’t even been imagined yet?
In this article, I will contend that in the past 20 years the industrial working classes in Ireland and elsewhere have borne the brunt of economic change, but even as this was happening underneath our noses, few spoke up for them.
Worse still, the decimation of the working classes and skilled manufacturing classes of Ireland, America and Britain has been called “progress” by those whose lives were unaffected by the closure of factories (such as Waterford Glass), shipyards and mines.
The industrial class was undermined by both technological change and globalisation, but rather than lament this, many people who were unaffected by this social catastrophe labelled what happened from 1980 to 2010 as the “inevitable consequences” of global competition.
However, the next great dislocation will be different.
Changing technology means that the middle classes are about to get it in the neck and it will be interesting to see how they react. The public sector will change forever and the returns to many professions that are now the bastions of the Irish middle classes – such as solicitors, accountants and doctors – will be destroyed by disruptive technology in the years ahead. I wonder will anyone speak up for them? Or will the rest of society be silent as the broad middle class was when the industrial class was decimated here?
The major agent for change will be mobile phones, or at least the emergence of personal computers on our phones and tablets, which will bring technological change into everyone’s back pocket. The instrument of change will be apps which will allow ordinary individuals to do lots of stuff for themselves that in the past had been the preserve of experts from one guild or another, such as the Law Society. Why would you pay for a lawyer to advise you about contract law, for example, when you will have an app to do this for you?
Lots of work that we term “professional” is in fact mind-numbingly dull, repetitive and eminently suited to being cannibalised by machines. Think about the paperwork and form-filling which constitutes lots of legal work, of the tedious spreadsheet-based grunt work that is the bread and butter of many accountants. Could these jobs be done by machines? Absolutely. And it will be cheaper, without doubt.
What about medicine? In a few short years we will have widely available apps that will be able to diagnose our medical ailments much more accurately than the opinions of our local GPs. Will we use these machines? Damn right we will.
Obviously there will always be a need for some medics because lots of us want to talk to a doctor with a good bedside manner because we want them to manage the message about our health so that we “feel” better. But the basics of medicine, the ‘what’s wrong with me’ and ‘what will heal me?’ questions, these are questions that are answerable by machines which will be more accurate than the doctors maybe because doctors are humans with feelings and as a result many find it difficult to tell us what we don’t want to hear.
The world of work is changing and will change yet more.
Estate agents, brokers and professional middlemen of all classes will disappear or at least will have to change what they do to make a crust. Will they go the way of travel agents, record shops and Xtravision?
Remember Blockbuster, the US video rental superstore?
In 1994, Viacom (CBS) purchased Blockbuster for $8.4bn (€6.2bn).
In 2000, the company turned down a chance to purchase the still fledgling Netflix for $50m (€37m). Today Netflix is worth $26bn (€19bn) and Blockbuster is gone.
I am not saying that all traditional professional jobs will disappear in 10 years, but the idea that you will go into a smart respectable office just because you have a few degrees and will be able to ensure a decent living for yourself, as your dad might have done, that’s over.
Interestingly, the jobs that were displaced initially by globalisation – the jobs where people made things – are coming back into vogue precisely because they are hard to do. The master builder, the skilled tradesman, the mechanic who can actually fix things and who can redesign and customise, are now among the safest jobs you can have right now. What used to be dismissed as manual labour, such as a good carpenter, isn’t manual at all. Building a table is actually extraordinarily cerebral involving a myriad of decisions, opinions, techniques and contacts.
Interestingly, our CAO points system reveals a preference on the part of Irish parents. The higher the points, the more kids want to do these degrees and the higher priority those kids’ parents put on these jobs. We still see medicine, law and accountancy high up there, yet these are the professions that may be at risk from technological change in the future.
Who will speak up for the professional class when disruptive technology comes looking for them?