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"Peak jobs"

The real jobs crisis is still to come

Will there be a "Google Car" on display at the next Geneva Motor Show? The data giant from Mountain View recently received approval in the U.S. for their "self-driving car" and residents of Nevada and California already have the opportunity to get behind the wheel. The first customer was blind.

These cars currently cost around US$100,000. In a few years, however, if the cost of this technology drops significantly, hand driven cars will inevitably be replaced by fully automated models. Human drivers will be penalised by higher insurance premiums, due to the increased risk compared to automated driving. Passionate car enthusiasts notwithstanding, this will probably deter young people from acquiring a driver's license at all.

If private vehicles can do without a driver, this could also apply to trucks, buses and taxis. Why should we continue to employ drivers, if you can transport passengers or goods cheaper and more safely with an automatic steering system? Such a development would cause tens of thousands of job losses in Switzerland alone.

Exponentially evolving technology is destroying more and more jobs. When was the last time you were in a travel agency or a record store? Machines have long replaced ticket counters in train stations and are now themselves being replaced by mobile apps. The technicians who maintain these ticket machines may soon also lose their jobs.

Soon our local municipalities will no longer need someone to read the electricity meter. Supermarkets can function without cashiers. Little by little, shopping centres are losing business to internet platforms. When is Fab going to replace Ikea? When will Zalando make us forget H&M? And contrary to what you might believe, this phenomenon does not just apply to simple jobs: robots are now capable of carrying out a not insignificant portion of the duties of doctors and lawyers.

In the seventies, socialists wanted to ban computers, for fear that information technology would destroy jobs. Over the past decades this concern has turned out to be unfounded. Instead, a process of creative destruction was in progress, whereby monotonous tasks were being replaced by more qualified work.

The TechCrunch blog poses an interesting question: have we reached the "peak jobs" moment – namely, when technical development destroys more jobs than it creates? If "peak jobs" has not yet been reached, this will certainly be the case sometime in the near future. What then?

Now that the global financial crisis is becoming more and more evident, especially in Europe, one wonders how countries such as Spain, whose youngest residents are already suffering from massive unemployment, will ever recover against the backdrop of this phenomenon.

What will these newly unemployed people do? If the burden on the social system is taken into account, it seems unlikely that the earning part of the population will be able to finance students, the unemployed and pensioners for very long. Spain also provides some indication of how this situation could develop: the first rural communities of unemployed people have formed, where it is possible to live reasonably well without help from the central government.

This can certainly be interpreted as a sign that a two-speed society is developing. The major differences will no longer be between rich and poor countries. Instead, within each country there will be prosperous areas (big cities) where privileged classes benefit from technological progress, high-quality education and enjoy a long life expectancy – alongside poor, predominantly rural areas where the population is self-sufficient in terms of basic goods and services.