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The Inevitable Self-Service Unemployment Crisis, Part 3

By Gary Deel, Ph.D., JD
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

(This is the third of a five-part series that will be published on Online Career Tips each Tuesday for the next few weeks.)

In Part 1, I discussed how self-service technologies are revolutionizing the consumer landscape. In Part 2, I explained why this change is taking place. Now in Part 3, I will discuss where I foresee this shift ending up and what the implications are for our economy, our society’s stability, and future unemployment.

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Despite the rapid emergence of self-service technology, a world that truly maximizes the use of these technologies will be very different from the world in which we live today. It is, however, a world that I believe is not terribly far away.

How Future Business Trips Could Look

Imagine the following scenario within a decade or two: You’re heading out on a business trip. You book your flight online. Your self-driving vehicle takes you to the airport, drops you off at the terminal and parks itself in the airport garage. You enter the terminal and approach a check-in kiosk.

After scanning your ID at the machine and checking in for your flight, you place your bag on an adjacent scale. The machine prints out a luggage tag, which you affix to your bag before placing it on a nearby conveyor belt for automatic sorting to your plane.

There are no TSA personnel at security. You place your carry-on belongings on a conveyor, where it is scanned by an X-ray machine. You then step into another machine that scans you for weapons and contraband. A TSA officer comes out only if the machines flag any suspicious items. After the machines give you and your luggage the all-clear, a door unlocks and permits you to proceed.

At the gate, there are also no attendants. When the plane arrives, passengers disembark and one or two cleaning staff go in to prepare the cabin for the next flight. Then an automated marquee calls you to board by zone. You scan your boarding pass on a machine at the gate, which unlocks a turnstile that allows you to enter the gangway. You file onboard and take your assigned seat.

On the plane, there are no pilots. Automated computer systems fly the entire trip. The usual flight attendants have been replaced by self-service tablets built into your seat and a bank of vending machines at the front and rear of the cabin promptly dispenses each passenger’s order with a pre-set tablet number. One airline employee is onboard for security and for handling any problems that may arise.

When you arrive at your destination, you gather your bag and take a self-driving taxi to your hotel. On the way there, you check into your room from your smartphone. Your phone’s near-field communication (NFC) system is updated with the encrypted code for your hotel room door lock. There is no need to stop at the front desk upon arrival.

When you pull up to the hotel, instead of a bellhop or doorman you are greeted by a roving automated cart. You put your bag on the cart and it guides you to the hotel elevators. The cart is equipped with a touchscreen featuring a video of a hotel representative welcoming you to the property and offering information about hotel amenities. After you arrive at your room and collect your bag, the robot cart wishes you an enjoyable stay and quietly disappears down the hall to service the next guest.

After getting settled, you head to the hotel restaurant for dinner. You seat yourself at a comfortable table on which you find a tablet displaying the menu. You tap on the tablet to order and 15 to 20 minutes later an automated dolly delivers the food to your table. After the meal, you settle the bill through the tablet and head back to your room.

In this short summary of a travel day, you will notice that you had zero interactions with a human being. This hypothetical scenario may sound like something out of science fiction, but consider that many of the technologies highlighted in this scenario are already in commercial use:

  • Self-driving cars
  • Automated check-in for airline baggage and boarding
  • Smartphone hotel room key access
  • Self-service tablets for restaurants

Others, such as completely autonomous planes and automated boarding, are currently in testing. And NONE of them requires inventions or innovations that do not already exist.

No, this future isn’t far off at all. If we simply continue on our current course, we will see something approximating this reality within 10 to 20 years. So what does this mean?

The Future Unemployment Clock Is Ticking for Working- and Middle-Class People in Many Industries

Frankly, it means that the future unemployment clock is ticking for working- and middle-class people in many industries. Bus drivers, taxi drivers, chauffeurs, pilots, ship captains, railroad engineers and conductors, waiters, desk clerks, concierges, bellhops, valets, stewards, retail checkout attendants, and thousands of other jobs are on the chopping block of 21st-century technological advancement.

The job market of the next few decades will not look like anything that has preceded it. On one hand, this change will bring an end to a lot of low-paying manual labor work that most people would rather not have to do at all. On the other hand, that same low-paying manual labor work is what currently puts food on the table for many American families, notwithstanding how much they like (or dislike) doing it.

Some of the brightest, most successful minds of the current generation — Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others — have already warned us that accelerating automation will inevitably lead to a skyrocketing unemployment rate; some predict it will be as high as 30 percent or more, according to a McKinsey survey. These concerns from well-respected pioneers should not be taken lightly.

But what can we do about this situation and future unemployment? We know that this major paradigm shift is upon us and that the momentum is already too great to stop it. So is there anything we can do, either as individuals or together as a society, to ensure that this shift doesn’t end in catastrophe and unemployment for ourselves and others?

In part 4 of this series, we will outline what needs to be done at the micro- and macro-levels to prepare for these changes.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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