Unemployment vs. Disemployment

Unemployment vs. Disemployment

I had the good fortune yesterday to attend a seminar in Palo Alto titled “How will Artificial Intelligence Change our Economic Future?” which featured two prominent authors/speakers on the topic of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics: Jerry Kaplan and John Markoff. I say “good fortune” not only because it turned out to be a very good seminar (more of a conversation really) but also because had I not been casually browsing events on Eventbrite this past Tuesday, then I would have missed the event yesterday altogether. The “extra good fortune” for me being that I just finished reading Jerry’s book – “Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” – only a few weeks ago so, again, very fortunate timing for me. (I have not read/listened to John’s book – “Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots” – yet but it’s on my Audible “wish list” so I expect to be absorbing its contents soon enough.)

Why am I so interested in AI/robotics? Several reasons:

  • First, in one way or another I’ve been working in what is perhaps now becoming anachronistically known as “hi tech” for going on twenty years so this is a topic that naturally interests me. (I don’t make robots but I’ve benefited greatly from them…and so have you!)
  • Second, don’t let the “AI/robot haters” (our modern day version of “luddites”) fool you…robots are way cool! From tea making robots to self-driving cars I have to say that I LOVE the possibilities that AI/robotics will open up for humanity in the future! (Yes, these emerging technologies will bring problems as well – which I’ve written about previously – but more on that below.)
  • Third, for purely self-interested reasons I want to understand how AI/robotics can and likely will affect my industry/business of outsourced IT support (a.k.a. “Managed Services”). Knowledge really is, after all, the last bit of “power” that just about everyone still has access to regardless of our individual means.

In any event, the seminar was a good one and spanned a wide range of topics on the effects of AI/robotics but, of course, the effect that was most discussed was the effect on employment. Jerry in particular did a very good job of conveying the dynamic and mixed effects that AI will have on employment by offering examples where AI will likely displace entire job sectors but also, at the same time, create entirely new job sectors that would not have been possible without AI. (“AI giveth and AI taketh away” as I like to say.)

At the risk of oversimplifying the pros and cons of AI I would say that these mixed employment effects boil down to “unemployment” and “disemployment”. What’s the difference?

Well, “unemployment” is more or less a temporary state of not having a job (this can be either involuntary or voluntary) for otherwise “employable” people. “Disemployment”, on the other hand, is not-so-temporary because it arises from the displacement and/or eradication of certain types of jobs or job functions that are likely never to return to our economy in any meaningful way. (In my previous post on this topic I referenced “buggy whip makers” and the reference is still a good one I believe.) Disemployment has also been called “structural unemployment” (or “long-term unemployed”) but I think that this term is euphemistic and doesn’t convey the concept very well…people don’t really know what the heck “structural unemployment” means.

Is one of these worse than the other? In a phrase, “hell YES one of these is worse than the other” and that one would be disemployment. Unemployment just requires the search for a new employer (assuming the unemployed person wants to go back to work…not all do) and while this is not “easy” it’s not nearly as hard as finding a whole new career as disemployment will almost always require. As a disemployed person you’ve got to re-train, start your new career at likely a very remedial level and, basically, figure out how to get back to where you were financially in your previous occupation, etc. Certainly not impossible…people do this every day but, again, this is a more difficult path to walk than simply finding a new company to work for while still doing, essentially, the same job.

So what can we do to prepare for either possibility in our working lives?

  • First, recognize that you MUST prepare for BOTH…regardless of whether you’re an employee, employer or self-employed (entrepreneur)…very, very few people (with the exception of the ultra-wealthy perhaps) are immune from unemployment/disemployment.
  • Second, avoid blaming advancing technology (AI/robotics or otherwise) for the existence of unemployment or even disemployment. We cannot love the “fruits of technology” (iPhones, Netflix, incredibly low prices at Walmart, etc.), on the one hand, and rage against the “rinds of technology” (job obsolescence, technology obsolescence, etc.), on the other. (Well, we could do that but then we’d just be hypocritical and no one likes a hypocrite! Also, blaming technology for job loss smacks of “playing the victim” and that may actually be even worse than hypocrisy.)
  • Third, have a bit of saved cash on hand in the event that you become unemployed (how much you need depends on your circumstances, obviously) AND make sure that you are constantly re-training yourself (in another postof mine I emphasize the importance of non-stop learning) to stay relevant and to avoid disemployment (and if you happen to be employed, remember that your employer does NOT owe you training…you owe it to yourself).

Bottom line: Leverage the technology (albeit biotechnology) between your ears as much as possible and don’t be afraid of what AI will do TO humanity…instead, be excited about what AI can do FOR humanity. Technology is not going to DISPLACE people (though, it may displace some jobs)…it is going to AUGMENT people (as it has from its inception).


When Danny is NOT busy “placating his robot overlords”, he’s also leading a technology consulting company. Hit him on Twitter or Facebook.

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