President Trump’s plan to revive the American middle class targets jobs in coal, steel, auto manufacturing and other powerhouse industries of the 20th century.
He’s missing the mark, according to two prominent technology futurists from MIT, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. “America has never been successful by trying to freeze in place the old way of doing things,” Brynjolfsson tells Yahoo Finance in the video above. “People have to constantly hustle and learn new skills. It’s almost cruel to tell people you can go back and preserve the old way of doing things.”
Brynjolfsson and McAfee are co-authors of the new book, “Machine Platform Crowd,” which is a follow-up to their 2014 bestseller, “The Second Machine Age.” The two tech gurus have a message some will find disquieting: the disruption caused by digital technology has barely begun. Coming next are smart machines able to do many tasks once considered the exclusive domain of humans, forever. “During part one of the second machine age, we built technologies that can handle routine stuff,” McAfee says. “Now, things are actually getting crazy.”
The next wave of change will challenge just about everybody. Companies will have to remake themselves by changing the roles of human workers to harness the power of intelligent machines. Workers will have to be more diligent than ever about keeping their skills relevant. And political leaders will have to pivot toward new policies meant to spread the benefits of technological change, rather than trying to fend it off.
Trump, so far, has talked little about the technology revolution, instead blaming the plight of displaced workers on bad trade deals and cheap foreign labor. There’s some validity to that, except that many of the manufacturing jobs that have disappeared during the last 20 years are probably gone for good.
“Large numbers of coal-mining jobs are not coming back to America, for all kinds of reasons,” McAfee says in the video. “More broadly, we are never again going to have a large, prosperous, stable middle class in this country doing routine industrial-era work. The assembly line jobs of the 1970s, those jobs are gone. To try to go back to the 1950s, I find that un-American.”
So what kinds of jobs will there be in the future? The authors highlight two types of work that can’t easily be automated or performed by robots: Interpersonal work such as coaching, caregiving and negotiating, and creative work such as developing new business opportunities and innovating.
As for policymakers, top priorities might be improving the nation’s education system so it better prepares students for rapid change in a knowledge-based economy. And governments could target help at communities that need to be better connected to digital technology and the businesses able to thrive on it. “When technology changes this profound happen, everything else needs to change, as well,” says McAfee. Including in Washington.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman