The transformation is only beginning to kick in. Self driving cars and trucks may reduce the need for human beings in the transportation and freight industries. Information processing is beginning to change the nature of the legal profession and even as law school applications fall by almost 50 percent there is much more change to come. Computer assisted diagnosis is making itself felt in health care. MOOCs are likely to change the way much of higher ed works.
It is impossible to say now how far and how fast this process will move, but more and more Americans are experiencing the kind of upheaval that blue collar workers in manufacturing began to experience in the last generation and white collar workers and journalists have felt more recently. We are seeing the greatest wave of economic transition since the mechanization of agriculture reduced the percentage of the labor force engaged in farming from more than half the American labor force in 1890 to less than two percent today.
The old engines of job growth, especially in manufacturing, aren’t working, and the competition for good jobs keeps getting tighter. With the entry of billions of Asians and others beyond the old industrial economies of North America, Europe and Japan into the modern economy, the competition is global. And if low wage workers can’t do the job cheaper than you, computers and, increasingly, robots mean that you can still lose your job…
The question, and it is not only a question for Americans, is where do we go from here? Is the new economy locking us into permanent inequality, insecurity, polarization and class conflict? Are we at the early stage of a Great Unraveling that will roll back the clock on the social achievements of the twentieth century and fall back from Blue Model Fordism to Victorian capitalism red in tooth and claw? People in Italy and France are asking this as much as people in California and Connecticut; these changes in the labor market are stirring huge and justifiable anxieties across the entire developed world.