AI Could Actually Help Rebuild The Middle Class

SERIFA for Noema Magazine

David Autor in Noema Magazine: In a recent interview with U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Elon Musk proclaimed artificial intelligence to be “the most disruptive force in history,” and noted that “there will come a point where no job is needed.” Last year, AI godfather Geoffrey Hinton advised people to “get a job in plumbing.”

The message seems clear: The future of work, for many of us, is imperiled. A recent Gallup poll found that 75% of U.S. adults believe AI will lead to fewer jobs.

But this fear is misplaced.

The industrialized world is awash in jobs, and it’s going to stay that way. Four years after the Covid pandemic’s onset, the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen back to its pre-Covid nadir while total employment has risen to nearly three million above its pre-Covid peak. Due to plummeting birth rates and a cratering labor force, a comparable labor shortage is unfolding across the industrialized world (including in China).

This is not a prediction, it’s a demographic fact. All the people who will turn 30 in the year 2053 have already been born and we cannot make more of them. Barring a massive change in immigration policy, the U.S. and other rich countries will run out of workers before we run out of jobs.

AI will change the labor market, but not in the way Musk and Hinton believe. Instead, it will reshape the value and nature of human expertise. Defining terms, expertise refers to the knowledge or competency required to accomplish a particular task like taking vital signs, coding an app or catering a meal. Expertise commands a market premium if it is both necessary for accomplishing an objective and relatively scarce. To paraphrase the character Syndrome in the movie “The Incredibles,” if everyone is an expert, no one is an expert.

Expertise is the primary source of labor’s value in the U.S. and other industrialized countries. Jobs that require little training or certification, such as restaurant servers, janitors, manual laborers and (even) childcare workers, are typically found at the bottom of the wage ladder.

Consider the occupations of air traffic controller and crossing guard. In broad strokes, these are the same job: making rapid-fire, life-or-death decisions to avert collisions between passengers in vehicles and bystanders. But air traffic controllers were paid a median annual salary of $132,250 in 2022, or nearly four times the $33,380 median annual pay of crossing guards.

The reason is expertise…

More here.

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