It’s worth repeating: “Think about that. Then think about it again.” That advice, offered by economist Richard Baldwin in his 2019 book, “The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work,” may sound simple, but in today’s complicated world of fast-paced change, taking the time to actually think about what we do and don’t know about the future of work is remarkably important. And it’s something a lot of us don’t do often enough, whether it’s because our lives feel too busy, or it’s simply more comfortable to assume today’s problems are somebody else’s to solve.
But the truth is, nobody, regardless of demography, geography, or economic background, is exempt from the profound transformations underway and the effects they will have on the future of our country, our communities, and our loved ones. And Baldwin’s book, while delivering complicated economic and technological intricacies on a wide scale, meticulously clarifies what we all need to actively think about, why we all need to care, and how we can all look ahead in a time of instability and inevitable uncertainty.
Baldwin, a professor of international economics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, has spent his career investigating the interconnection between globalization, technology, and trade and what that means for economies around the world both now and in the years to come.
The relationship between globalization and automation has been a constant and essential force throughout history that has, today, taken on a new identity and become a whole different animal than anything we’ve seen before: “It is coming inhumanly fast, and it will seem unbelievably unfair.” Baldwin explains that “this is not evolution with the fast-forward button pushed. It is really something different.”
As the title suggests, the book focuses on “globotics,” a term Baldwin aptly uses to define these new phenomena of “globalization in the shape of telemigrants and cognating computers in the form of white-collar robots,” both of which will disrupt previously unharmed service and professional job sectors. As Baldwin puts it, “steady jobs won’t be so steady anymore” and the impact of “the globotics upheaval’s disruption of service-sector and professional jobs will be like tossing a lighted cigarette into a firework factory.”
“Over the next few years, the number of jobs displaced by white-collar robots will be somewhere between big and enormous. ‘Big’ means one in every ten jobs is automated; ‘enormous’ dials that up to six out of ten.”
These new technologies are revolutionizing communication, timeliness, and productivity and, in doing so, they are shifting the balance between those uniquely human capabilities and the fast-growing potential of automation, AI, and robotics. They are changing the way we find employment and hire employees and are eliminating historic geographic and physical barriers. They are changing the very fabric of the workforce and altering the job market landscape across all sectors and all collar colors we might wear.
What really caught my attention was the way in which Baldwin uses scientific principles, theories, and definitions to explain the nitty-gritty details of how ever-evolving technology impacts jobs and then seamlessly places those deeply technical truths into the context of normal, everyday life.
He explains why our human brains can’t naturally comprehend the very same changes we can see and feel around us and then he takes it one step further, converting these hard-to-comprehend numbers into riveting, digestible tidbits that repeatedly made me blurt out “HOLY SH*T,” regardless of my surroundings or company. He talks about the human experience alongside the hard data and economic patterns and explains how they are intertwined through a sobering account that connects technology and jobs with social and political unrest.
“All change is associated with both pains and gains. But when CHAnge comes very quickly, people end up having to undertake ’emergency maneuvers’ that can be extremely costly personally, financially, and socially…The globotics upheaval, however, is not coming in an orderly manner. When tens or hundreds of millions of Americans, Europeans, and other advanced-economy citizens are forced to change jobs, the transformation will—in any version of the future—produce economic, social and political upheaval.”
For me, understanding how the unpredictability of technological advancement creates very predictable social, emotional and economic responses but unpredictable social outcomes was truly eye-opening. And by masterfully layering quotes from experts and corporate leaders, Baldwin made me feel like I was listening in on conversations between some of the most innovative and influential minds in the world, both past and present.
Baldwin reminded me how important our specifically-human skills are — the things we are good at that robots and AI are not — and why we need to understand them, strengthen them, and emphasize them to create opportunities in the face of globots and telemigrants. I repeatedly found myself asking “what human skills am I consciously developing for my future?”
The book took me on a journey through the major technological transformations throughout history and helped me understand what from the past can serve to guide us today even though so many of “the old rules will no longer work.”
Yet despite the uncertainty and discontent we see and feel around us, Baldwin believes that “in the long run, all will be for the best.” We all need to understand that “every economic transformation creates triumphs for those who can seize the opportunities and tragedies for those who can’t,” and in order for society to thrive, “preparation is essential.”
He reminded me to think about the significance of both the inevitable and the predictable on a technological, economic, and social scale and offers that, ultimately, it is up to us how we use this awareness to make choices and prepare for the future knowing that the outcomes will be either “good or ghastly.”
Needless to say, I took Richard Baldwin’s advice. I thought about it all, and then I thought about it all again. And again. And again. And again. Now I urge you to do the same.
Eve Bilger is WorkingNation’s Research Associate. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in English with a specific emphasis on creative writing. She is WorkingNation’s most voracious reader of books about the future of work.