It Can’t Happen Here: What Happens After Occupy Wall Street


by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

The Occupy movement is most significant not for what the protestors say, but rather that the movement is happening at all. It demonstrates significant unrest, and the greatest dissatisfaction with the capitalist system that we’ve witnessed since the fall of the Soviet Union. But where is it headed? That’s a much more worrisome question.

The fuel that powered the Vietnam war protests was the draft. There were many other issues – objections to the military-industrial complex, objections to American foreign policy, objections to the money misspent on the war, dislike and disagreement with McNamara and Johnson, even objections to war per se – but without the draft, the protests could not have been as sustained or as widespread as they were.

In the same way, the fuel that powers the Occupy movement is jobs – or rather, lack of jobs. In America, and most other developed countries, the official unemployment rate is high, but the true unemployment rate is obscenely so. In the U.S., for instance, the official rate is 9%. But if you include those who have stopped looking for work, and therefore are no longer counted in the official unemployment statistics, then add those who are underemployed, the true rate approaches 20%. And if you look at the rate for young men, particularly among minorities, it approaches 40%. There is immense frustration with the lack of opportunity, and the smug, self-righteous people who look at the protestors and sneer, “Get a job!” only reveal the vast depths of their ignorance.

It’s true there are many issues embraced by the Occupiers, but without the lack of jobs, the movement would never have developed into much of anything. Americans are not generally a jealous people. If people were prospering, the middle class was expanding, and young people were able to find jobs and start their careers, they wouldn’t really have cared what percentage of total wealth is held by the top 1% of income earners. What rankles is that the rich continue to get richer through a perceived manipulation of “the system”, while the vast majority of other people suffer economically. It leads to the belief that the game is fixed in favor of those who can afford to buy the politicians. Whether this is right or not may not matter – it’s the perception that’s important here. And that perception may be explosive.

But where is this movement going? What’s next?

The Future of Work

If the future holds more jobs, and greater prosperity for most workers, then the Occupy movement will collapse from lack of fuel, and be remembered as a strange fad that came and went, like pet rocks or hula hoops. That’s not the case, because the future of work is much bleaker than people, even most top economists realize.

There are two forces that are squeezing workers in all developed countries: foreign competition, and domestic automation. One is going to get much worse, and the other is going to get slightly better.

The one that will get slightly better, at least in manufacturing, is foreign competition. There have been headlines for decades about the offshoring of jobs. There was even a management cliché for it in the 1990s: “Emigrate, automate, or evaporate,” which meant move your factories offshore in order to take advantage of dramatically lower wages in developing countries; decrease the labor content of your products in order to reduce the advantage of cheap labor in developing countries, or go out of business. (As an aside, there’s actually a fourth option: innovate, but that’s another story.)

This happened because of the emergence of the global economy. A global marketplace implies a global labor pool. If workers in developing countries can do similar work, but at much lower wages, then the work will naturally gravitate to them, and away from workers in developed countries. This has been going on since the 1970s, and is a familiar tale. It makes headlines, and becomes the subject of learned papers by economists, and protests by industries and unions that want protection. And the offshoring of jobs will continue until there is a rough parity between those producing things offshore, using cheaper labor, and the cost of producing things at home, using more expensive labor.

One way this could happen is through wages falling in developed countries, and rising in developing countries. But wages tend to be sticky; not many people are willing to take a cut in pay. As a result, what has tended to happen instead is that workers here are let go, and their jobs disappear, even as the wages in places like China and India are, indeed, rising.

The mild good news here is that much of this adjustment has already happened. Indeed, there are a few reports of manufacturers moving production back to America as the cost of labor in China, for instance, has risen, and as governments, particularly in the southern American states, have reduced legal protections for workers, effectively lowering their cost. (Whether you view this as a good thing or not is a separate issue. Indeed, it’s a difficult issue: do we want good worker protection, but no jobs, or bad worker protection and some jobs?)

The other way for workers in developed countries to compete is through higher productivity, and many companies have survived and kept their production in America that way. Yet, even when they succeed, the number of jobs required goes down. Businesses survive, but only by shedding jobs, leaving a trail of unemployment in the wake.

This is the past and present. The future will be different.

Increased productivity comes most notably through increased automation, and we’ve all experienced that, as when we go to the gas pump, swipe our credit card, and pump our own gas, all without an attendant. But automation is about to become supercharged.

The rate of change in computing speed and cost-effectiveness is not only accelerating, but the rate of acceleration is increasing. Some technology forecasters believe that computers will increase in power by 1,000 times over the next 10 years. With this growth in computing power available at steadily cheaper prices, automation is going to accelerate dramatically, eating its way up the workplace food chain. Only this time, it’s not going to be primarily blue-collar jobs that disappear – that’s pretty well already happened – but white-collar jobs that are hard hit. Indeed, anyone who uses a contemporary computer can experience this for themselves.

With the Macintosh laptop that I’m using to write this blog, I could (if I had the talent) write a new piece of music, score it, perform it with dozens of (computerized) instruments, record it and release it for sale. I could take videos with my iPhone, download them to my laptop, edit them, add titles and special effects, add in the music that I had created, and then publish the end result on YouTube. In effect, with these two tools, a laptop computer and a smartphone, I can replace composers, performers, and an entire movie making team – and that’s using today’s technology. Very shortly, I could make an entire movie, using technology to create photo-realistic virtual actors and background scenes, dub the voices myself, then change the sound of my voice using technology, and produce an entire movie without anyone else. True, it would be a terrible movie as I know nothing about directing, editing, or acting, and not much about composing or playing musical instruments – but that’s not the point. The point is that the tools we use are becoming so powerful that high-end jobs that used to require skilled people can now be done by ordinary folk.

Likewise, computers will move into medicine, performing research using Genetic Programming, and assisting doctors to do complex diagnoses using smart computers like IBM’s Watson; performing clerical work in almost every conceivable industry, and displacing millions of white collars workers along the way; drive cars, trucks, and trains unassisted; and almost any other kind of routine work. Indeed, computer intelligences and everyday robots will move towards replacing workers in any and every kind of repetitive work, leaving only creative, innovative, entrepreneurial work – and leaving millions, or even tens of millions of people unemployed.

What Happens When Too Many People Are Unemployed?

If you look at the Arab Spring from earlier this year, it wasn’t so much a yearning for the freedom to read newspapers not approved by dictators, or the desire to vote that was the driving force that caused people to revolt, but unemployment, especially among young men – leading the inability to create a life, to feed your children, or even to be able to afford to get married and start a family – that drove the revolutions, and inspired young men to face bullets and tanks. If you look at the protests in Europe, it’s not just the anger that a lazy, luxurious way of life is being taken away from Greek citizens, but a very real fear that they won’t be able to live that drives citizens to the barricades.

Unemployment, the specter of want, and the inability to make a decent living, to have a decent life, is historically a very potent, very scary force in geopolitics, and it’s with us now. The Occupy movement is not just about fairness, but driven by the fear and anger that there is no opportunity unless you are one of the privileged class that has a job. As the number of jobs lost to automation rises, so too will the number of people who will respond to the goad of fear and anger about their future.

Worse, it’s not just about finding a job – it’s also about keeping one. Jobs appear and disappear faster than at any time in history, and someone who is a valued employee and a rising star one day can be redundant and valueless the next. A person in that position can try to retrain and find new work, but they find themselves among the multitudes of people desperately seeking work. Without the in-demand skill that got them a job in the first place, they are reduced to the same pavement-pounding, resuming-producing, faith-sapping odyssey that afflicts so many out of work people today.

I’ve seen this coming for some time. In 1993, I wrote a book called Facing the Future. In that book I wrote the following passage:

It’s an overall decline in the need for work that concerns me, brought about by the increasing capabilities and sophistication of computers.

I seem to be very much in the minority on this view, and I may be dead wrong. The conventional view is that as jobs disappear from manufacturing and clerical work, for instance, the steadily rising productivity of workers using increasingly sophisticated automation will create a new prosperity that will increase demand and create new jobs. This is certainly reasonable, because it is precisely what has happened throughout history. But where, I wonder, will the new jobs appear? The conventional view is that new services will spring up, and that higher living standards will allow people to spend money on things they could never afford before, and that much of this will be for personal and personalized services.

I can see logic in this. New services do appear. There were no aerobic instructors, for example, in my grandfather’s day. But how much personal service can we use? Moreover, generally speaking, service jobs pay less than manufacturing jobs. As for being able to buy things that we couldn’t afford before, since manufacturing will increasingly be automated the higher demand for manufactured goods won’t necessarily generate more jobs.

This is not a problem that will burst on the scene in the next five to ten years. Humans are still capable of offering a flexibility, initiative, and creativity that machines cannot duplicate. But at some point, whether it’s twenty years away or one hundred, I’m afraid that the time will come when there will be very few jobs that computers can’t do better, faster, cheaper, and more reliably than humans. As that day approaches, we will be confronted with several problems.

In the first place, we will need a new economic system. Much as it grieves me to say so, free market capitalism may be dying, for it only pays those who are part of the production process. If virtually no one is part of this process, all the fruits of production will belong to those who own the machines – a recipe for the peon-and-aristocracy patterns of Third World economies. But where will the machine-owners find their customers? People can’t be consumers unless they have money to spend. …[1]

In the intervening 18 years, I’ve seen nothing to change my mind. We are, indeed, heading towards a world of aristocrats and peons. Indeed, that is precisely what the Occupy forces are demonstrating against, only they use a slightly different terminology: the 1% and the 99%. Same thing.

So where is this leading us? If I’m right, then even if the economy and employment picks up, and mollifies the Occupy protestors and their spiritual kin, the concerns will return again and again as the long-term rates of unemployment, especially among the young, continue to rise. And that way lies revolution.

What Should We Do About This?

If we lived in Naples in 79 A.D., and saw steam pouring out of the top of Mount Vesuvius, we would try to warn the residents to flee. We are in an analogous situation. This volcano won’t erupt in the next month or next year – but as things are trending, we need to take action, and soon, or we risk precisely the kind of revolution we witnessed in the Arab Spring earlier this year.

It’s no good trying to stem the tide of automation. That smacks of the 19th century luddites smashing mechanized looms that they felt were stealing their jobs. Moreover, it would be like trying to hold back the tide, and about as successful. It is possible that politicians, under voter pressure, will seek to ban automation and the productivity increases that automation produces in order to preserve jobs. (This is also called “featherbedding”.) All that means is that countries that do not ban automation will see their relative productivity increase, their cost structure decrease, so that the jobs will migrate from here to there rather than being lost to automation.

Instead, politicians, economists, and anyone else interested in our future prosperity and stability should be taking a serious look at how to create new, better jobs that people can do best. These will largely be entrepreneurial, I suspect, and will all be creative, and focus on innovation. This also implies a complete revamp of our education system, away from rote learning and memorization, and towards creativity and individually customized education, to enable each person to emphasize the things they are best at.

None of this will happen quickly or easily. It requires a very different view of “job creation” and a very different understanding of the future of work. The “magic of the markets” won’t solve this problem. Capitalism, left to itself, will emphasize greater productivity through automation, leading to greater profits for the owners of the machines – until profits collapse because there aren’t enough consumers to by the goods and services industry produces. Capitalism will lead to a dead end.

This is not the conventional view, and many will decry my message as “socialist”, although I’ve said nothing at all about redistributing wealth. Some will pillory me for being alarmist, but without attempting to refute my reasoning. And some will just hide their heads in the sand and say “it can’t happen here.”

To this last group, I would suggest that they tell that to Moammar Gadhafi and Hosni Mubarak. They were sure it couldn’t happen there, either.

© Copyright, IF Research, November 2011.

[1] Worzel, Richard; Facing the Future: The Seven Forces Revolutionizing Our Lives, Stoddart Publishing, Toronto, 1994, pp.82-3.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ray Anderson Nov 21, 2011

    Our “education system” has been out dated since the 70’s. Totally agree that the education system needs to produce entrepeneurs not government workers. As teachers only know government largess, how do we get back to our roots, before the assembly line demands were imposed on the school system and it became more an indoctrination system than education? There are 900 million Chinese who earn $5 or less per day. Sure glad I listened to amongst others, yourself and quit my job in 1992, to be self employed. I worked my tail off for the first 5 years, to have a life since then.. I am teaching my kids about the issue of owning their own business vs working for others. There is no future in the world of the job, just indentured servantry.

  • Eric Hornby Nov 21, 2011

    Truly believe your assessment of things over recent years is on the mark. I will find it interesting to follow your theory as to neccessary change of thinking by government and industry.

  • Anke Bosma Nov 26, 2011

    Great insight, Richard. I’m just wondering how all the service oriented jobs fit in with your statement: These [jobs] will largely be entrepreneurial, I suspect, and will all be creative, and focus on innovation.