The end of full employment

In the past, as technology has come around, society’s response has been to make people more educated, get them into the workforce later, and then get them a higher skilled job.

This works when the level of education that is required for a productive life has grown to the point where is it hard for many people to reach that level. It is clear that the unemployment rate for high school dropouts and people with just a high school diploma is much higher than those with a college degree (2 to 4 times higher in fact). What goes unstated is that the educational attainment of the average high school graduate is not at a 12th grade level, or even close. To give a sense of scale, on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) an advanced 4th grader knows more than a basic 12th grader. Additionally, the average score on the NAEP is less than proficiency by a hefty margin for 12th graders.

It seems that, at least under the current educational system, there is a limit on the maximum that people can really learn, for whatever reason. It seems unreasonable to expect that people will be able to actually read, write and do math at a 12th grade level. That means that there is a limit to the jobs that many people can get. As automation moves forward, the number of jobs that people who cannot read, write and do math at a 12th grade level can do will shrink. At a certain point, the number of jobs that these people can do is will be significantly exceeded by the number of people.

As far as room for growth, I don’t think that this will become a real problem in the short term, but I don’t think that this is a problem that can be solved in the long term. While the educational situation may get somewhat better, I don’t believe that people can be educated  to successively higher levels. At some point, people will not be able to be educated enough, and will be unable to get jobs.

The day is coming, the question is, what happens then?


One thought on “The end of full employment

  1. This is way out there, but what about incentivizing machine designers to create machines that do the jobs humans don’t want to do, and the jobs humans find fulfilling/enjoyable would not be automated, even if it was easy to do so. There are plenty of jobs which could be automated but are not for whatever reason, and this would be adding one more reason to not do so.

    To respond to your point about high school grads not having 12th grade level knowledge, I bet I could find research stating that college grads do not possess the knowledge expected of them. I would guess that many of the jobs college graduates have could be done by someone who had not gone to college. After all, most of the info relating to a job is obtained while someone is holding that position. There is probably a limit as to the number of desirable jobs which don’t require going to a specialty school (nursing, engineering,…), and college grads get priority for those jobs (I don’t know if this is fair or not, as the stated goal of a liberal arts education is the education, not getting a job).

    I’m glad you included the phrase “at least under the current educational system, there is a limit on the maximum that people can really learn, for whatever reason.” The system (and you have discussed this in a different post) needs to change to allow for different priorities and learning styles of the students. One example is a democratic school where students learn what they want to learn, so by definition they have a say in their education. There are many people out there that are far more knowledgeable about the educational system than me (you among them), but I don’t think enough experimentation has been done to start mourning necessary limits of the students in this country.

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