Oregon in the Machine Age

How will we survive the coming wave of automation?

Cover photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

Tina shrugged, as if getting fired was just another day in her life. I prompted her further, trying to get at what really happened. As her job coach, it was important I understand. She wore a tired smile, and within the tight confines of my office the smell of her perfume mingled with the lingering aroma of my French press.

“I dropped it and went to pick it up,” she said, “but the machine got to it first.”

“You could’ve been hurt,” I said.

Tina was talking while trying to navigate her phone at the same time. Eventually, she gave up punching at its keys and shouted at it for the link to the unemployment office. The phone complied. Tina, satisfied that she had this information for her next appointment, returned her attention to me.

“Maybe,” she said. “But I knew I could get it.”

I nodded. Tina was less than three weeks into her job at Amazon, well within the probationary stage of her employment. I felt sorry for her, but I knew she’d been trained not to chase after a fallen item on the warehouse floor. The company had robots to sweep the floor and retrieve these. It was not only less efficient to go after the lost item, but dangerous: the robot would descend on it either way. Tina had wanted to correct her own mistake, but there is no room for that kind of human discretion in the world Amazon is building.

“The important thing is you’re okay,” I said. “I’ll help you find another job.”

I don’t remember if I did or not. As a vocational counselor working with clients facing barriers to employment in East Multnomah County, I met with hundreds of people every year. Some came for a single appointment, others for a series of intensive coaching sessions. My clients often relied on production work in warehouses. These jobs were rigorous, and companies never seemed to fill them for long. They were the low-hanging fruit of referrals, jobs I knew I could send people to because the companies required little in the way of education, specialized skills, or even a clean background check. They needed bodies. 

Sending people to these jobs didn’t satisfy my idealistic streak, but that wasn’t the goal. Working production was better than going hungry or facing the uncertainty of long-term unemployment. Many of my clients were eager simply to have work. Their struggles became a kind of backdrop for my life during my three years as a job coach. I enjoyed helping people, but the experience hollowed me out. It began to feel like a meat grinder, an endless succession of referrals to low-wage jobs that required endless hours of standing and repetitive motion.

Amazon’s arrival in Oregon didn’t change this dynamic, but it did put a sleeker face on it. Where before I had referred people to temp agencies and part-time work, Amazon offered full-time employment with benefits and a relatively livable wage. The opening of its Troutdale facility in 2018 was heralded as a watershed moment for the eastern part of Multnomah County, with other warehouses following around the state.

It was hard not to become enamored with Amazon’s youthful HR reps and their high-energy recruiting events. Promotional videos featured smiling employees who claimed their lives were changed by joining the company. A job with Amazon appeared to be a ticket to stable employment for people accustomed to lives of uncertainty and an opportunity to be an integral part of the emerging economy.

Efficiency was the rule with Amazon. From the moment a candidate applied to their first day on the job, everything was handled in an automated fashion. A candidate interviewed briefly with recruiters, but their eligibility was determined by their application, their performance in an online assessment designed to reflect the job, and the availability they indicated on a computerized calendar in which they chose their schedule. If they weren’t a fit, the computer let them know on the spot. If they were, they would start as soon as the background check cleared. It helped if they were comfortable working overtime on top of an already grueling “compressed” schedule of at least forty hours in a four-day stretch.

Amazon’s automated hiring was a preview of the jobs these associates would fill. Throughout the process, recruiters talked up the relative ease of the work: although it required many hours of standing and repetitive movement, much of the labor was handled by robots who would do the heavier lifting. These machines were presented as helpers that would lift the burden from employees. As I sent hundreds of people to Amazon, becoming a de facto recruiter myself, I couldn’t help thinking that those same robots would eventually replace their human coworkers. The recruiters smiled as they promoted this robotic help, but it seemed to me a dark joke.

Nonetheless, I helped fill Amazon’s employment ranks in that first year, much as I continue to fill their coffers through my own purchases now. While some of my clients, like Tina, struggled to acclimate to the automated workplace, others thrived and found the reliable employment they had long sought. But they may not keep it for long.

Amazon’s semi-automated warehouses are at the forefront of a broader change sweeping through our economy. Like the industrial revolution, the advent of the assembly line, and the rise of outsourcing, the shift toward automation will hit the working class first and hardest, but it won’t stop there.

Cashiers are already increasingly an anachronism in an age of self-checkouts and online shopping. Other retail jobs will follow, as brick and mortar stores permanently disappear. Then production jobs like Amazon’s. Already the company is piloting warehouses vacant of human labor. In the regular warehouses, associates often work in darkness, followed by a spotlight through the vastness of the otherwise automated complex. As robotics become more sophisticated, this loss of jobs will carry over to construction and other physical labor.

The work not occupied by physical robots will be filled by ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence, as is already happening in the fields of customer service and tech support. Transportation jobs may go next, as self-driving cars, trucks, and buses come into use. Amid this change, those already on the margins of society will be alienated further. Jobseekers without basic computer skills already struggle. Many are middle-aged or older folks, laid off from jobs they’ve held for decades or coming out of retirement after learning the social safety net is anything but, only to find their skillsets obsolete. They need training, but may not see going back to school or taking an apprenticeship as sensible options. They’re rudderless in the current economy and will be totally lost in the automated one that’s taking shape.

We have millions of people who are accustomed to years and even decades of physical labor as their way of life. Many have never earned money in any other way. It’s naïve to suggest these people will all easily segue into service and creative jobs, go back to school, or attend for the first time. Some prefer to work with their hands, either because they enjoy it or because it’s all they know. Maybe there will be roles for them in the new economy, positions auxiliary to the machines that have replaced them; maybe there won’t. And this is only the first wave: artificial intelligence is still in its infancy. Given the exponential rate at which machine learning can grow, there will eventually be no job, no matter how sophisticated, that AI cannot fill.

In the best scenario, the rise of automation could lead to a new Renaissance, a post-scarcity world in which machines provide for us and we give our lives over to leisure, to art, to love, or to whatever else strikes our fancy. Such sunny forecasts leap past the interim period, where we still live in a world very much defined by scarcity. Before the dawn of any robotically facilitated utopia, billions of people will see their livelihoods disrupted.

I worry we might be facing unprecedented long-term unemployment, economic depression, and a widespread decline in mental and physical health as people submit to homebound, sedentary lives. Many of the vulnerabilities exposed by the current pandemic will be exacerbated in perpetuity by the coming disruption. Without the sense of purpose and agency provided by employment, some may turn to crime or hate. In search of something to fill the void in their lives, they will be easy prey for demagogues.

To answer these challenges, we need something akin to a Green New Deal for the coming machine age. The rate and scope of the coming change is too great for anything less than a preemptive, robust suite of new government programs and modifications to existing ones. Chief among these is the imperative to provide accessible, affordable retraining options for people to build new skills and pursue the trades that will still have a future. As someone who has worked with the Oregon Employment Department, I know such programs are horribly underfunded. These need to be expanded, along with long-term modifications to unemployment, not unlike what we’ve seen in the ongoing pandemic.

Unfortunately, the dangers of the machine age are not receiving priority on our public policy agenda, either nationally or here in Oregon. But for those awake to the urgency of this challenge, important work is being done. The Portland Business Alliance’s Value of Jobs Coalition has studied the impact of automation on the regional economy and issued key recommendations. The coalition found that Oregon’s risk for job loss due to automation is in line with the national average, but that the average still presents a daunting challenge. In 2013, an Oxford University study determined 47 percent of US jobs were at high risk of automation. What’s more, the study predicted a time horizon of less than thirty years for the AI-driven automation of most jobs, including more sophisticated tasks like writing best-selling fiction and performing surgery.  

If left unchecked, the disruptions of the machine age will grow the income gaps already worsened by the pandemic. Those most vulnerable are low-wage workers with high school educations or less. Communities of color are more vulnerable, as are rural communities, particularly on the Oregon coast. The VOJ Coalition calls for widespread training efforts to build new skills for those currently in the labor force and young people starting their careers. It also recommends strengthening the social safety net by increasing opportunities for affordable housing, education (especially in the STEM fields), and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers.

The Oregon Workforce and Talent Development Board has taken this work farther with its AI task force, which issued a report in October 2020. Like the VOJ, it sees opportunities for Oregonians to thrive in the coming AI-driven economy, but only if private companies partner with government, nonprofits, and workforce development to train workers to take on the AI-driven jobs of the future. Although it calls for state government to lay out guidelines for the ethical implementation of AI, it also sees this new economy as an opportunity as much as a threat.

The twin innovations of robotics and AI have the potential to boost our quality of life, even as they separate us from the economy we created. If we don’t prepare now, we will participate in the market as consumers only. Human labor will be irrelevant, and the concept of gainful employment will be an anachronism. We can’t afford to lose sight of the human beings who remain at the heart of that future.

Comments

1 comments have been posted.

Thank you so much for this clear-eyed, thoughtful take on the future of automation and its impact on workers. I love your coherent writing and the chance to engage with these ideas. The one thing I would add is that automation is benefitting people at the top of these corporations. Someone makes a lot of money when human work is reduced. As long as business owners can become exorbitantly wealthy while others struggle, we won't be able to reach any kind of equitable economy in the future. Government programs can fill in and assist if they are funded--as you suggest--but this will require significant changes in our tax code and structural changes to corporate compensation. In addition to your suggestions about increasing and improving education and the social safety net, I would add breaking up monopolies and taxing American oligarchs. Anyway, thank you so much for spurring these thoughts.

Lola Milholland | March 2022 | Portland, Oregon

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