Andrew Yang and the Nature of Work

Image for post
Image for post
By Asa Mathat for Techonomy —, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Most pundits will discuss whether Joe Biden did well, or not. What about Kamala Harris? Then there is Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. But they are missing what Andrew Yang said yesterday about the nature of work.

The people replacing union workers at plants in Michigan are not immigrants from the South. They are not even jobs exported to Mexico or China, or for that matter, if we could, Mars. They are being replaced by automatization. The rise of the robots will completely change the nature of work, and with that also the nature of Unions.

This is the elephant in the room that most policy wonks, this includes Warren incidentally, refuse to tackle. Incidentally, in the past, I have asked this question from local, state and federal policymakers. How are we going to tackle the rise of the robots and the transformation of the American economy into the Precariat, service economy we are becoming very familiar with?

Here is the actual quote, and one that you should remember. Because those robots are coming for your driving jobs. They are also coming for your warehouse jobs and even medicine. AI is also going to replace many a day to day reporter job.

”If you go to a factory here in Michigan, you will not find wall-to-wall immigrants; you will find wall-to-wall robots and machines. Immigrants are being scapegoated for issues they have nothing to do with in our economy.”

Many of these are good-paying jobs. Others, see Amazon, not so much. Regardless, the economy is getting transformed right under our noses, and none is willing to ask…what now?

Yang is aware of these changes and has even broached the subject of Minimum Income, which should be universal. He is also talking of something else, which many older Americans resistant to the idea of the end of employer-based health care, do not understand. Their children and grandchildren will change jobs often. This is the nature of the precarious economy we increasingly live under. This is the gig economy.

The transformation implies a few important things. The first is that people just entering the workforce today, will not remain with a single company for the rest of their lives. This has not been a reality for some time, but this trend is accelerating. Portability in health care is essential, and employer-based health care is not going to happen.

But, but, unions fought for their healthcare and gave up wages! The age of the industrial union is likely coming to an end. Unions, as we know them, are the product of the third industrial revolution. We are in the midst of the fourth, and unions will either have to reform or die.

There are a few things that are happening that point to this new awareness. First Lyft and Uber drivers are considering how to organize. The reality is that both companies will likely dispense with most of their workers as soon as autonomous vehicles become common. But for the moment, they are doing what other workers before they have. The only way to fight the corporation and get better working conditions is to organize.

There are other places you see the rise of the robots. I might revolt and not use them, but those automated checkouts at the supermarket are part of it. They will displace millions of workers. This is already starting.

Grocers are under pressure, in an already thin-margin business, to cut costs and make the shopping experience more enjoyable for customers. The front of those stores merits a refresh, where long lines can be slashed and resources can be employed elsewhere.

As the cashier ranks dwindle, displaced employees can work other areas of the store, focusing on certain merchandise categories or assisting customers.

For now, Amazon Go is still only open to the company’s employees in Seattle. But Kroger and Walmart are opening the floodgates for this new technology at hundreds of stores in 2018.

In the end, this will displace workers who are at the bottom of the service economy. Many of these workers belong to a union, and their employers still fight against good medical benefits or wages. This is where a national health care system would free the unions from the need to fight on two fronts. Either preserve these benefits or get better wages. Now there is a third front opening, and this is how to preserve jobs.

Yang was the only candidate on the stage dealing with any of these issues. Perhaps it is because he comes from a technology field. Or maybe it is his age. However, these issues most become central to any candidate. Why? The future of work is not in the old industrial unions, but in how the economy continues to transform.

Will Yang win the nomination? That is likely not in the cards. But I do hope the next president taps him to serve as Secretary of Labor. We need somebody who understands these changes because, like the climate emergency, this is coming. We need somebody who can explain this to policymakers. Alternatively, Yang should run for office, either a Senate or House seat. We need young people in government who understand these issues.

And yes, it is frustrating to ask these questions and get non-answers if at all. One of the reasons for this is that most policymakers are still living in the past, thinking that the economy of even five years ago is the future. It is not. We are in the midst of historic changes, and it will make the future very different from the present.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store