The Real Future Economy

March 12, 2014

Dr. Dustin Swanger

We hear a lot about the “future economy” and the need to acquire post-secondary education and training in order to participate in this economy. Indeed, I have written about the need for people to attend colleges, particularly FM, in order to prepare for the “future economy.” This is all true.

However, it seems to me that we have been writing about the current economy and the “near future economy.” Everything that I have read and every conversation in which I have participated has centered on preparing yourself, through a college education, for the high-tech and innovation economy; this is where the jobs will be found.

But I’ve been thinking about the more distant future. To have that conversation, let’s start with the not-too-distant past. America has been one of the top producing countries for decades. The productivity of our workforce has always been high. However, in the 50s – 70s, much of that productivity was actual labor. Assembly lines, glove stitchers, carpet weavers, etc. used machines to produce products, but they were human operated machines.

Today, we’re hearing that companies are bringing manufacturing back to the United States, now called “reshoring.”  There are several reasons for this trend; productivity of U.S. workers, cost of transportation, tariffs on imports, locating closer to the markets, etc. However, there is another trend; a technology trend. Companies are using more and more “smart” machines to improve productivity. Workers no longer “operate” the machines as much as “watch” them. They measure the output and make adjustments if needed, but many things are made by machines, robots, automation, etc., without people touching them at all. This drive to improve productivity with machines, software, and sensors will continue. Currently, it means we have to have more companies with fewer workers in order to sustain our community.

But what does it mean for the future?  If this trend continues, it means that industry will need fewer and fewer human workers. It means that we are working toward creating an economy that provides very few jobs. I believe this will be a reality a few decades from now. The jobs that are provided in such an economy will require very highly educated and innovative employees. They will be wealthy. There will be no jobs for the unskilled or semi-skilled masses. Sound frightening? It should.

I hear people say “this group of folks are lazy,” or, “that group of folks just wants to live on welfare and be supported by the government.” Well, the fact is, we have an economy now that has little room for those without skills. Factories that once employed essentially illiterate employees who could perform assembly line tasks and “make a living” no longer exist. So as this “future economy” comes into existence and there is only need for a few workers, what will the rest of us do? Will we all be the lazy ones?

This workerless economy isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but we should begin to think about it. What will our society look like when only 15% of us hold jobs? How will the rest of the people sustain themselves? Is the drive for productivity and “cost reduction” more important than creating a society where people work? Is it a question of money or values?

Do I know that this will happen? No. Do I think it will happen? Yes. Whether I’m right or wrong, if we don’t start talking about it now, it will surprise us in the future with no time to figure it out. However, no matter what happens, Fulton-Montgomery Community College will be here to prepare our students for the future.

Dr.  Swanger is President of FM.

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