Human beings use technology. Our extensive use of technology is what defines being human. Humanity only has a written history of our early life because we invented the technology of writing. That written history often speaks about the rise and fall of empires and the technology that we used. Stone tools, smelted metal, stone buildings, war chariots, and even agriculture. Humanity and technology evolved together. Recently, during the industrial revolution, our simpler tools evolved into machines. At first, machines made us better and more productive workers. Now, machines compete with human workers for jobs. For nearly two centuries machines created new jobs, but now machines are creating a jobless future. Consider the humble light bulb.
Everyone knows what a light bulb is. Bulbs are so important to our world and so ubiquitous that when we want to show that someone has an idea or invention we draw a cartoon of the bulb lighting up over their heads. The light bulb was invented almost a century and a half ago. But lately, that bulb has changed. Originally it was a glass tube with a hot, glowing wire. Now it is more like a miniature computer. And that’s where our problem starts.
America uses a lot of light bulbs! The average home has 47 light bulbs or nearly 6 billion bulbs across the US. If these were all 100-watt incandescent bulbs (which they were, until recently), they would consume 535,000-megawatt hours (MW) of electricity when they are used.
If we compare this to Palo Verde, America’s largest nuclear power plant… which generates 3,937 MW and employs 2,000 workers… it would take 135 Palo Verde to power them. That’s 270,000 power plant jobs just to light up bulbs in our homes. We also use bulbs in corporations, streets and parking lots, restaurants, schools, hospitals, small businesses, etc. This easily doubles the power, and the power stations, we need for bulbs.
When bulbs were incandescent, a 100-watt light bulb burned 100 watts. Simple! If it was used for 8 hours a day it lasts for 6 months. Fluorescent bulbs came next and have been around for decades, but homes only partially adopted them. The color of their light was a bit “off”, and some people saw an annoying flicker in the light. Improved compact fluorescent (CF) bulbs produced better light, lasted longer, and used just 24 watts for the same amount of light. LED bulbs are the newest technology, producing similar illumination with just 11 watts, and lasting 10 to 20 years. That’s an 89% power savings over incandescent. Which makes nearly half a million power plant jobs obsolete.
Don’t worry about Palo Alto. As one of the most advanced, automated, and efficient power plants in America it will get along just fine. Instead, our oldest and least efficient power plants will shut down. They use more workers per MW than Palo Alto and usually burn coal. That means that even more power plant jobs will be redundant. Without these power plants, few of the remaining 50,000 coal mining jobs will be needed. Finally, consider how long LED bulbs last. Since they rarely burn out the army of handymen, superintendents, and repair people who replace old bulbs won’t be needed either.
At this point, you might think, “If changing to LED bulbs destroys American jobs, maybe I won’t switch!” That won’t work unless most Americans do the same. And American’s are switching to LED’s, in very large numbers. The low power use of LED’s translate into cost savings. Going back to just our 535,000 MW per hour for home light bulbs, a switch from incandescent to LED means that an hour of LED light saves $57 million dollars. Switching from CF to LED saves a “mere” $15 million per hour. Either way, add up all of the hours the bulb is used in a year and you see that it is a truly massive amount of money.
You might also think, “But everyone will buy LEDs and that means more jobs!” Unfortunately, no. Remember the long, long lifetime of LEDs? Since an LED can last 50 times longer than an old style bulb… new versions will last even longer… once everyone has replaced their old lights, it’s going to be a long time before they need to change these bulbs. Even if tastes change Americans all buy much more lighting, LED factories are highly automated and are mostly offshore. They are not going to add many jobs in America.
A change in technology in our humble light bulb sets off a massive disruption in employment throughout America and the world. But light bulbs are not unique! There are disruptors everywhere… even in some of the most fundamental areas of our economy.
Self Driving Cars: It seems that everyone wants to get in on self-driving cars. There are too many companies to list! When vehicles are all self-driving, millions of jobs for drivers will go away. With just self-driving vehicles on the road, accidents will virtually disappear (35 thousand killed every year, a million plus with injuries). That means car insurance goes away, and tens of thousands of lawyers, plus many hospital emergency rooms and beds, and fewer garages to repair cars.
Hotels: When America change from a manufacturing to a service economy, hotels and vacations spots benefited. Today, more than 16 million Americans work in the hotel and leisure industry. But firms like Airbnb, HomeAway, and Turnkey are working feverishly to disrupt the hotel industry. By making hotels and travel less expensive, they are draining money out of the industry. Reusing existing spaces inside our homes mean that the industry now needs far less real estate. And fewer hotel managers, cleaning staff, travel agents, furniture manufacturers, and so on. And… for the time being at least… fewer taxes since there are currently a number of tax loopholes that significantly favor vacation homes over hotels.
Finance: Supermarkets and department stores are decades ahead of banking and financial firms in becoming digital, online, and paperless. Banking is desperately playing catchup. Which may mean adopting Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, approving loans through artificial intelligence, and digitally managing virtually all paperwork. As much as 40% of America’s 6 million financial jobs would be lost in this transition. But hyper-simplified digital financial services won’t just reduce staffing in financial services. Every firm will need far fewer staff for payroll and accounting. In fact, payroll companies would virtually disappear, along with firms that print checks, produce credit cards and so on. Digital services would eliminate the need for all fo these middlemen.
Disruption, after disruption, after disruption. There’s an endless list of disruptions, each larger than the last, with each new disruption eliminating more jobs than they replace until we arrive at a jobless future. Some technologies, especially in artificial intelligence, may replace jobs they create before the first hire. Before you lose all hope, and bow to your robotic masters… a jobless future may not be as bad as you think. But that is another story!