Human mental processes are being systematically "off-peopled"--that is, transferred into computers, microchips, networks, and mechanical devices of all types.
Think of it as a great global brain drain, the most critically pivotal--either empowering or suicidal--trend of our times. Yet it is under-reported by the media and virtually invisible to the public eye. It's not yet on policy makers' radar screens.
It could create a golden age for everyone but threatens--if current social and business practices continue--to force millions of blue- and white-collar workers below the poverty line while making the rich richer.
The Industrial Revolution offers a useful precedent, because we're starting to feel the same empowerment but suffer the same trauma experienced by laborers, farmers, and craftsmen when machine power extended muscle power but removed sources of livelihood from labor. Except now it's mind power that's flowing into our tools.
People adjusted to the Industrial Revolution by moving from labor-intensive jobs to know-how jobs. That won't work this time, because know-how tasks are the very kind being usurped. We need a new strategy for the new transition, and we should not expect an improving economy to restore the quantity and mix of yesterday's employment.
Farming, too, offers a precedent. As recently as 1900, it took almost 40% of America's workforce to grow the nation's food. Today, thanks to progressive mechanization, it takes less than 2%. Factory work has retraced much of farming's downward trajectory. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), goods-producing workers decreased from 38% of the non-farm workforce in 1940 to 17% in 2003, and it's not hard to imagine goods production soon joining farming in the less-than-2% club. At that time, the service sector would, by today's definition, theoretically boast more than 98% of the non-farm workforce.
But there's a problem. As information technology automates white- and blue-collar functions alike, most of the remaining jobs as we know them are being transferred into all-electronic systems. By 2100, it is possible that fewer than 2% of the U.S. non-farm workforce will be needed to handle today's know-how functions in factories, offices, stores, professional suites, hospitals, research labs, and universities.
If know-how work is being taken over by ever more-sophisticated tools, what's left for people to do?
A new class of jobs has yet to be named: work involving hard-to-automate hyper-human skills that go beyond know-how.
We can divide today's service-sector workforce into two types--know-how and hyper-human. Know-how service workers are likely to plummet to less than 2% of the workforce by the end of the century, but hyper-human service workers may zoom to over 90%.
According to BLS, many service-sector jobs lost people during the 1993-2003 decade, when they should have gained 19% just to stay even with the overall increase in the workforce. Examples include travel agents (down 7%), gas station attendants (down 4%), personnel in commercial banking (down 1%), and book publishing employees (down a fraction of a percent).
Industries gaining more jobs in the decade included radio and TV broadcasting (up 16%) and legal services (up 15%). But the percentage increase of jobs could not keep pace with labor-force growth of 19%. The reason: automation of know-how, allowing more do-it-yourself services ranging from pumping your own gas to filing your own will, publishing your own book, and placing your own orders.
Some job categories outpaced overall labor-force growth during the decade, but professionals in these fields should not feel immune from brain-drain forces. Accounting and bookkeeping services, for example, gained 39% new jobs. The increase would be even greater were it not for fast-improving do-it-yourself accounting and tax-preparation software. …