The Future of Work, Remarks by George N. Sibley at The Future of Work Conference

Hosted by AMCHAM’s HR Committee
Leela Palace, April 10, 2017

(As Prepared for Delivery)

Mr. DP Singh, thank you so much for inviting me to speak.  It is an honor to share the dais with you.

Let me be honest right at the outset.  The future of work for me, personally, is not in India.  In just a few weeks I will be packing my home, saying farewell to friends, and departing New Delhi.  No I have not been fired – not yet anyway! – but that is the nature of our work in the Foreign Service.  We serve and move and serve again elsewhere.  Come August, perhaps some of you may visit me in Myanmar when you have business there.

The point is that I am incredibly busy these days simultaneously doing my job and preparing for my move.  So I told my office manager not to allow me to take on any additional responsibilities.  Like speeches at conferences.  And yet, here I am.

The reason is that this topic is both fascinating and important.  The honest truth:  I could not resist.  That is why I am here today and why I plan to stay, at least through the morning sessions, to hear what wiser and more farsighted commentary the upcoming panelists may bring.

To begin to frame the discussion, however, let us acknowledge that change in the nature of work is not new.  Like everything else in our fast-changing world, it may be occurring more rapidly than in the past but it is certainly not the first time we have experienced disruption.

Not long ago, barely a couple of centuries in fact, I could have predicted with a high degree of certainly what your lifelong work would be – at the time of your birth.  If you were a woman, you would face a lifetime of strenuous household labor without pay and with very little choice.  In many parts of the world, sadly, that would still be true today.  If you were a man, you would follow in the steps of your father.  And the kind of work you did when you started – at the age of eight or nine or ten – would likely remain the same for the length of your lifespan, which then might have been forty or fifty years.

My mother grew up on a farm in the middle of Nebraska.  She turns 89 next month, so you can guess this was awhile ago.  But in her youth the farm had neither electricity nor running water.  She assures me that going to the outhouse in midwinter was not a pleasant journey, when it might be forty degrees below zero – that magical figure at which there is no need to cite Fahrenheit or Centigrade as they are both the same.  Nebraska must be a slightly magical land, because she reliably reported that she had to walk five miles to school every day through the snow – and that it was uphill in both directions!  Her father was a brilliant man, an artist and writer and thinker who was relatively uninterested in farming and – to be honest – not especially good at it.  But it was his working destiny to do what his father had done, and he was a farmer all his life.

His oldest son followed in his footsteps and my cousins wanted nothing less than to continue the tradition.  But by then the small family farm was not efficient enough to support multiple families and so my cousins had to seek their work elsewhere; one left to become a mechanic and another became a warehouse manager.  Work had changed and, although they were disappointed, they had to change with it.

Let me take another example.  The first American diplomat sent to India in the late 1700’s was Benjamin Joy, who arrived in Calcutta with a commission from George Washington.  The great export then was ice, believe it or not, that the Americans would chip out of frozen New England ponds and then cram into the wooden hulls of sailing ships which raced halfway around the world to deliver their cargo before it melted away into water.  Where have all those jobs gone – the ice chippers?  The stable boys who cared for the horses and the coachmen who drove the carts full of ice to the docks?  The sailors who trimmed the sails and swabbed the decks as the vessels made their way, or the officers who turned their newfangled technology – the sextant – to the skies to ensure they would not stray from course and dash against the rocks?

And speaking of the 1700’s, some of that work may have been entirely involuntary.  Slavery was not abolished in the British Empire until 1807 or in the United States until 1863 in the midst of our Civil War.  That was a major change in the future of work at the time!  Although I should be more careful and say “outlawed” rather than “abolished” because to this day, even in advanced societies like India and the United States, there remains a reside of illegal slavery that we must continue to expose and eliminate.

I spend so much time dwelling on the past as a way to normalize the present.  Yes, there are hugely disruptive forces in play.  Yes, they will change the future of work and the future worker.  They will change leadership and workplaces.  They will change how we assess and manage work.  All of the topics to be covered today are being affected and will be further affected by the changes that we see occurring now, by the changes that we can foresee coming in the future, and – perhaps above all – by the unforeseen changes that can be reliably predicted, even if we cannot now divine just what they would be.

The biggest disrupter appears to be technological innovation.  When I studied my elementary economics course, the professor explained that three elements went into production:  labor, capital, and productivity.  In its simplest form the message was, that if you increased any one of these three factors, you would increase output.  For this reason people speak of the “demographic dividend” in India and the curse of aging populations elsewhere.  Because if your working age population is not being replenished, by that formula your national production must decline.  And if your working age population is growing – in India’s case adding a million strong arms to the workforce every month – then your national production must grow rapidly.

However, this formula only works if there are productive uses for the workers entering the labor pool.  Herein lies the urgency of Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” imperative.  If he does not want to face the social distress that comes with mounting lakhs and then crores of unemployed youth, he has to find them jobs.  “Make in India” indeed!

Yet perhaps he is living a dated paradigm.  I visited an American carmaker at its factory here in India about a year ago.  As I toured the spotless facility I remarked that a lot of the work seemed to be carried out by robots.  The gentleman who was showing me around remarked that a similar plant in the United States might be 95% automated but that lower labor costs in India meant that it was more efficient to only automate about 70%, although he added that this number was steadily rising.

Yes, add labor and you will get more production.  The formula still holds.  But do you need a worker to actually do the labor?  Or can one person watch over a dozen machines doing the working that a hundred workers once did in the heyday of the assembly line?

This type of transition is not new either.  The Luddites were famous in the early nineteenth century for destroying the weaving machinery that they feared might eliminate their jobs.  And yet, the paroxysm having passed, the labor force adapted to the new technology and our societies continued to grow and prosper.

I think that is the key question that we face today.  Are we in a situation where the disruption of work is leading to a new job market?  The automotive assembly line made the handcrafted cart-maker redundant, but it created thousands of jobs and registered astounding productivity gains.  As a result, in short order every worker on that assembly line had a car of his own – and later two or three!

So today, will the new technologies and new industries bring commensurate new jobs?  Or is it possible that robotics, and sensor technology, and artificial intelligence are transforming the labor marketplace in ways that go beyond the disruptions we have seen before?  Is it possible that work itself, as we have known it in our societies, is undergoing a fundamental change?

This is a critical question because whichever the answer, our policymakers need to respond.  But the correct response is entirely different depending on the answer.

If it is the former, then we have seen this play before.  We know what to do.  We need to challenge our education system to bring new skills to our workers; we need to incentivize our workers to re-educate themselves for a different kind of work; we need to help them find that work and help them to move locations if that is necessary.  If our policies do all of those things, then off our workers will go to new jobs in this brave new economy.

Yet if it is the latter, then we are in uncharted waters.

The first problem is economic.  The source of income for the vast majority of our population is earned wages.  If there are many fewer jobs does that mean growing poverty and insecurity?  Recent PEW data in the United States seem to point in that direction.  In 2014 only 71% of men 18-to-34 had a job as compared to about 84% in 1960.  And for the first time in more than 130 years, 18-to-34 year-olds were more likely to be living with their parents than any other living situation.  But if the unemployed workers are not earning wages, if they are living at home and not buying houses, how will they keep the engine of the consumer society running?  So far, at least, the robots building the cars are not buying them!

Not buying them, but soon it appears likely they will be driving them!  Some observers have called out contingent labor as the next wave in the future of work.  The top exemplar of that proposition is the Uber driver.  I met a young woman in Kolkata a few weeks back and she insisted that Uber is not a transportation company – it is a technology company.  I got her point, but when we live in a world of self-driving cars, I think it may become both.  When Siri is behind the wheel, the contingent labor of the Uber driver will no longer be needed.

This is why we hear more-and-more notions that in the recent past would have seemed radical.  Even India is toying with the possibility of a universal basic income.  A guaranteed income assures our citizens they can remain consumers within our economy, at least to some degree.  It breaks the hard link between unemployment and poverty and introduces greater security.  But is that enough to solve the problem?

This raises the social dimension.  So much of our identity is tied up in our work.  When work changes, so do we.  If we are not working in a paying job, and putting food on the table for our families, what are we doing?

Had it been my grandfather that you asked this question, he would have been painting and writing and exploring the worlds of thought that had been closed to him in a hardscrabble Nebraska farmer’s life.  But unfortunately his may be a somewhat exceptional case.  For too many others, the loss of work may mean a loss of identity and self-worth.  It may mean depression and alcoholism and drug addiction.  If the future of work really does mean that there will be a lot less of it, then our societies will need to find ways to respond to find other ways to seek value in our lives.  How shall we do this and whose responsibility is it?

One great advantage of speaking at the kick-off panel is that you can raise these difficult questions and then cheat and skip the answers.  After all, if I provided all of the solutions you could go home and save yourselves the rest of the day!  But I do not have the answers.  Instead, like all of you, I will be listening closely to the upcoming panels to seek enlightenment.  And I look forward to the many answers you may all provide to that critical question.  What is the future of work?

Thank you.