The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century (2016) by Ryan Avent looks at how the author, who works for The Economist, thinks how work will change in the twenty first century. Avent, who works at for The Economist, thinks that many manual jobs may well be replaced by AI.
Avent, while recounting how he works at The Economist, thinks about how other people work when working at jobs that are not at The Economist. Avent got a powerful lesson as a young man, before working at The Economist, when his father made him do chores in the yard. Possibly it was at this point that he realised he wanted to work at The Economist.
The book ponders automation and income distribution. It is actually a bit surprising that someone who does work The Economist, thinks that redistributing income is something that can be wisely and easily done and should definitely be done. The Economist used to be the magazine of classical Liberalism, Avent seems more of an American style Liberal.
Have I mentioned that Avent works at The Economist?
The question of how work is going to change in the twenty first century is important, difficult and interesting. The reduction of jobs in manufacturing, the possible automation of many or even most jobs is really something that is worth pondering. However, the first place to start would be by looking at how work changed in the twentieth century. There are useful numbers looking at how manufacturing and farming employment changed in particular. Also the huge changes in family size and women working are really important. These sorts of shifts and the somewhat surprising fact that unemployment hasn’t already shot up is something that a book that looks at twenty first century employment should be carefully considering.
The lack of ‘Rosie the robot’ type robots that have been imagined for over 50 years is also something to ponder. Avent amusingly suggests that iRobot is looking at making robot lawn mowers, he is unaware that Husqvarna have been making them for twenty years but that most people don’t have one because of their high costs. Most people don’t have a Roomba either. The lack of rapid improvement in Robotics (Kuka’s law?) should be mentioned as much as the massive improvements in semi-conductors and communications.
The book isn’t bad. Avent writes very well as would be expected for someone who works at The Economist. But his view is myopic, The Economist is a very unusual workplace and it provides a poor lens with which to look at how work might evolve. He makes some good points that low wage growth might be in part be driven by pressure to find any job due to automation already cutting into work’s role. Also his analysis of how business culture is incredibly important and hard to transplant is insightful. However, the book lacks more of a numeric and historic base to look at how work may evolve and is let down by this.