Why You Can't Screw the Creative Class

Anyone who does repetitive (only) work, whether requiring physical labour or not, is always in jeopardy of having their job automated. A task which doesn't require a person to cultivate a demanding skill, make well thought through and important decisions, or solve difficult problems, can usually be done by most anyone and quite often by a machine. In many cases it can't, especially jobs requiring physical labor. We still don't know how to make robots that have the same mobility and dexterity as a human being. But we're making some good progress. Once, the physical problems are solved, there is nothing stopping a huge class of workers from being replaced completely.

I'm going to make the assumption that we won't have machines that are as mentally capable as humans any time soon. If we did, this would change life irrevocably, that this entire argument would be void. I'll also be using software for my examples. There are two methods that can be used to replace knowledge workers. There the same two as the ones used to replace unskilled workers. The work can be sent elsewhere. However, there are two important differences between thinking and non-thinking work with regards to the quantity of such work. Suppose you need a certain amount of mindless physical labour to assemble cars. There are a lot of people who can do this. It might be 30% of the population. But you don't need 30% of the population. Even if you could get all the free parts you needed, you can only sell so many cars. As the process becomes more mechanized, the people become less useful. Suppose on the other hand, you need software and controls experts to make your cars work correctly. Now it may be only one or two percent of the population who can do this. And it may very well be only a few thousandths of a percent who have actually learned the necessary skills. And these jobs can never go away. If more people get into this field, the field becomes bigger and more important. If every man, woman, and child on this planet had the IQ and motivation of an Einstein or a Newton, there wouldn't be less work - there'd be more. The depth and complexity of real problems always get deeper and larger as more people start thinking about them. Thus the limiting factor on how much work there is to do is how few people are working on a particular problem. Contrast this to the car assemblers. The limiting factor is how much physical product the world actually needs. But cars can always be made better; so, there will always be work for people who know how to make them better.

The other option is to mechanize. But you can never mechanize away a thinking job. You can only change it. If you write software for a living, you've seen how quickly the non-thinking/repetitive portions of the work are quickly automated. This never eliminates your job. It just lets you do more. Once upon a time, programmers were bit twiddlers. Then they were structured programmers. Eventually they became more like engineers working at a very abstract level, designing complex software systems by putting together bits and pieces of already working components. As the tools are able to do more and more high level tasks, the people who use them have their minds freed to work on more difficult problems. Is there less work to be done? I'm thinking no. And this is really true of anyone in the creative class.

There is one last point I want to make. And it's that you can't turn problem solvers into assembly line workers. If you try to do this everyone loses. This is a sure-fire way to demotivate employees. Take all the challenge and meaningfulness out of work and no one wants to do it anymore. If it's possible to describe a task so specifically that the person doing the task is essentially following a script, the task can be automated. And it should be so that the person is freed to work on other problems. If the task can't be described at this level of detail, then the person should be given the freedom to solve the problem as they choose. Under no circumstances should the work be turned into a set of near 'mindless' tasks.