Tips for Beating Automation: Organizing is the Future!

ACORN Citizen Wealth Financial Justice Organizing

Puerto Aventuras   I have trouble getting my closest living relatives to take the issue of resolutions seriously as we enter a new year. My son tried to stump me by arguing that, “resolutions are reminders of how many things you fail to do repeatedly.” Well of course there’s that, so I had to concede the point even as I rejoined that, “resolutions are a small attempt at organizing the future within the structure of your life.” At best it was a draw, so I found myself reading The New Yorker at dawn on New Years’ Day on the small balcony hanging over the suddenly quiet street in this small Mexican town.

Elizabeth Kolbert of course rehashes the Oxford research piece that within ten to twenty years half of the jobs in the United States might be automated, which is pretty mind boggling. She notes other work by MIT scientists that sort all work into “four boxes: manual routine, manual nonroutine, cognitive routine, and cognitive nonroutine.” The lowest pay will be found in the manual routine jobs, particularly on assembly lines, while the highest paid will be cognitive nonrouotine, she argues with examples being “managing a hedge fund, litigating a bankruptcy, and producing a TV show….” Taken to the farthest extreme we have a dystopian society of the super-rich who own the technology and the robots, some folks scratching a living in the middle, and a vast army of the unemployed.

So, where is the middle ground where we can create work that is meaningful, compensated, and long lasting? It must be found in skills and occupations that are people-facing. Even Kolbert’s example of managing a hedge fund is questionable. A recent article in the Times had one hedger trying to duplicate all of his decision making into a computer list of requirements for his employees to mimic. On the other hand, the more that is run by machines, the more we are going to need people to be the bridge between the machines and other people. I’m not just talking about people to fix the machines, though there will hundreds of thousands of jobs created to do just that, but I’m talking about people who can work with people. There’s still no “app for that” or machine that can substitute adequately for person-to-person contact. The trick will be finding the seams where tens of thousands of jobs can be created to provide that service, and to successfully compete with corporations that automate without understanding service as something more than a sunk cost that they can avoid.

Take Amazon for example. The people-facing experience is all automated and very difficult to operate when there is a problem, but they get around that with a very liberal return-and-replacement system which mitigates customer unhappiness. Walmart on the other hand after devaluing service for years has been surprised to find that giving workers higher wages has improved same store sales because morale, cleanliness, and service has improved. AirBnb beats VRBO because it allows you to get out of mistakes the public chose on misleading information, while VRBO let’s sellers use its platform and takes no responsibility, thereby eliminating service and accountability and putting customers at risk.

Things may be changing, but the way many who own the changes think about shortcuts and profit margins will create opportunities for people who like people to be organizers, navigators, advocates, and interpreters. Forty years ago, a young ACORN organizer named Charlie Best wrote a song at ACORN’s annual year end/ year begin meeting which — to some outcry — was always held on this very weekend when one year ended and another began. The original song written by Ed and Patsy Bruce and recorded by the great Willie Nelson was “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” but Charlie creatively composed different lyrics and changed the title to “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Organizers.”

Mamas and papas. I’m here to tell you, Charlie was wrong, though of course he knew it then, just as we all did, you all need to let all your babies grow up to be organizers, so they have a chance in the brave new world, and because the people will demand them.