We are in the midst of the largest civil unrest in America in a generation. Though the direct cause is yet another police murder of a black man, much like an airplane crash, the situation spun out of control for a number of combined factors.
As I write this, San Francisco Bay Area is well into week 10 of the shelter in place order. Some parts of the world shut down earlier, some later. In almost all regions, this has meant the same thing: don’t leave your house for anything but needs deemed “essential” such as grocery, healthcare, banks, gas stations, and a few other categories that comprise the basic backbone of our society.
Though in comparison to being displaced by war or major natural disasters, it seems staying home and binging Netflix is easy, it has been tremendously difficult on many people’s psyche as they’ve lost their normal routines and sense of purpose. For black people in America, this crisis has compounded with the normal health crisis state of living black in America. It is no surprise that the pandemic has affected the black and brown communities particularly severely both in mortality and unemployment rates.
Let’s talk about mental health. Entrepreneurs have made unhealthy habits of tying their sense of identity to the companies they build. But the same can be said about people who draw purpose from any number of all-engrossing professions. Bankers, lawyers, and doctors are notorious for spending far more than average 40 weekly hours working. And the privilege of being able to do so only comes after many years of singularly-focused education. The creative world is not much different. As the saying goes: the only way to get to Carnegie Hall is to practice, practice, practice. Even then, most creatives don’t ever reach the pinnacle of making a full time living from their craft.
“Who am I?” is the question teenagers have been asking themselves since The Stone Age. The pandemic has sickened millions and killed hundreds of thousands. The economic shutdowns it has caused, not only devastated many financially but forced them to rethink their entire sense of identity. The new question has become, “am I essential?”
While most kids have dreams of one day defining themselves as astronauts or firefighters, actors or doctors, most adults find life is really defined by a series of non sequitur life choices. A mid-life crisis is essentially coming to grips with the fact that you ended up somewhere you didn’t expect and at once feeling like you don’t have enough time to achieve those dreams you once had. For minorities, this effect is measurably worse. They are simply falling out of society at an alarming rate.
The historic job losses and massive shifts in work environment for those still employed, resulted in a collective reset the likes of which we haven’t experienced since WWII. Given the real time nature of modern society, the speed of the shift is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.
As I first engrossed myself in studying the state of Artifical Intelligence years ago, I began to understand just how transformative and fast this particular industrial revolution will be. It scared me. Society is focused on petty arguments while the metaphorical frog is boiling. Alarm bells are not being heard while statistics show us that we are just a decade away from the optimistic case of just 15% of our workforce having to retrain entirely. Sure new technology will provide new opportunities we can’t even imagine now, but empirically, the transition is too fast to prevent those who cannot retrain from suffering the severe economic consequences. Especially since the cost of college tuition has more than doubled in the last 30 years.
Andrew Yang brought this issue into the main stream of American politics and sufficiently simplified the message for the masses. Never mind the inequities, given the economic shifts on the horizon, it became even clearer that our system is not sustainable for the majority of the population. The first and second industrial revolutions unfolded over the course of three generations. The AI revolution is happening at the blinding speed of one generation. The pandemic is compressing to nearly instantaneous.
As companies are coming back from pandemic shutdown lows, they are finding that they can generate the same level of business with fewer people. In fact, a May 5th, 2020 study by Becker-Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago projects that 42% of the 30+ million American jobs lost since March, will be permanent.
“How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
In retrospect, it is not difficult to guess why investors drove the stock market to such a fast recovery. Tech giants are consolidating their gains, others are reducing costs and finding more efficiency in operations, while many who have been buying back shares instead of fortifying their balance sheets, are expecting gracious government rescue packages. Much of this at the cost of tax payers and municipal budgets who are in dire need of support and will not get it. The inequities are being accelerated in mere months before our eyes.
As countries are coming out of hibernation and people begin to rebuild, I fear many will continue to self-identify as “non essential”. In the past weeks, calls to suicide hotlines have increased 800%. Suicide rates have increased with every past economic downturn. 2020 may very well set a record. The civil unrest is bound to have unpredictable effects. Hopefully at least some of them positive.
So where do we go from here? If we look at past philosophical musings on the positive effect of the AI revolution, we can expect a renaissance in creativity as people free up their time from menial tasks. However, the future of unlimited free time seems to be here for many and we are not nearly ready for it. Andrew Yang was proven right much faster than he expected. Even faster than Mike Judge, who wrote and directed the film, Idiocracy in 2006.
Coincidentally, what makes us human is the fundamentally “non essential”. Taking care of chores is not what inspires us and makes us want to jump out of bed in the morning. It is music, movies, sports, traveling, tasty food, entrepreneurship, competition, learning, and new experiences. Humanity is creativity.
I can’t say we are headed into uncharted territory, because we are already swimming in it. The siren songs of escapist entertainment can only keep the masses calm for so long. We need to make immediate changes to support a large group of people who have suddenly fallen out of the work force. Not “some day”. Not in 10 years. Now. We no longer have a choice or the luxury of procrastinating the development of that support system.
Automation, and the irrelevance of numerous labor categories that come with it, is inevitable. To avoid complete societal break down, we must rebuild with a sober look at the future, not the past. We have an opportunity to do it right and build the foundation to support a whole new societal structure that is, at once, more inclusive. One that provides the necessary safety nets for people to focus their energy on creative pursuits that truly make us human.