The goal was to save money,” Ken Dean said. A senior IT manager near Sacramento, California, Dean oversaw Sprint’s mailroom operations in the early 2000s. Inside the data center, one of three in the United States, hundreds of employees folded bills and stuffed envelopes.
“Our two largest costs were postage and people,” Dean said. Over time, he discovered what many large companies were realizing—that electronic bills could cut postage costs and machines could replace people. “Eighty percent to 90 percent of what was done in the data center could be done by a robot,” he said. It was his job, identifying technology to make the data center more efficient, and he was good at it. Naturally, expenses shrank. So did the staff.
The technology progressed dutifully to its inevitable destination: In 2008, Dean shut down the company’s last data center. Another 70 employees lost their jobs. A Christian, Dean took some solace in recognizing their God-given value beyond their roles in the labor market. His employees did not. “They were devastated,” he said. “For many of them, their confidence and worth was based upon their paycheck. They did not think they were valuable outside of their work context. There was a lot of fear.”
That was when mailrooms were still a thing. Today, workplace automation—and the fear it evokes—has expanded to horizons previously unimaginable, vanishing drivers from taxis, writers from journalism, and clerks from grocery stores.
Economists describe our current moment by distinguishing between economic growth and an economic pivot. Growth increases goods and services. A pivot, however, is a fundamental shift in how those goods and services are produced and delivered. (Think movies: What once required a visit to a brick-and-mortar rental store now arrives digitally with the click of a button, no retail workers needed.)
A mounting body of research suggests the labor market is in the middle of a pivot—a rather ominous one already being called the “fourth industrial revolution.” One study by Citigroup and Oxford University found that 47 percent of jobs could be automated in the next decade. More recently, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that nearly half of all jobs could be replaced by technology that already exists—drones, self-driving vehicles, automatic kiosks, robo-traders, self-learning software, 3-D printers, and other forms of artificial intelligence.
Far more than trade, economists point to technology as the biggest culprit in the loss of US manufacturing jobs. According to an MIT study, each new industrial robot deployed in America since 1990 may have reduced overall employment by three to six jobs.
Robots will short-circuit millions of careers in the United States alone, and with each disruption, more people will find themselves mid-career with obsolete skills, leaving them underemployed or worse, unemployed. The rapid shift is impacting families and entire communities, where predictable work no longer provides a foundation for stability in other areas of our lives.
Let’s be honest: The prospect of uncertain employment prompts fear at the deepest levels. The ideals of the modern American man and woman are built on hard work and reward. So if we can’t be certain of the future of work, what can we be certain of?
How we—and how the church—answer this question will depend on our assumptions about what it means to be human.