How Do You Destroy 2 Billion Jobs in 20 Years?

Answer: you innovate. That, anyway, is the supposition of the prominent futurist Thomas Frey, who operates out of the Colorado-based DaVinci Institute. Speaking at a TED conference in Istanbul last week, Frey casually threw out (as an aside in a conversation about higher education) his belief that about two billion jobs (approximately half of the world’s stock) would disappear by 2030 (he’s referring to the gross loss of 2 billion jobs through creative destruction, not an economically devastating net loss of that amount.)

Of course, this isn’t the sort of thing one can footnote in a conversation and expect to go unnoticed, so now Frey has posted a breakdown on his website of some of the industries that he thinks will be driving the change. He mentions five in particular as on the cusp of radical overhauls:

1. The energy industry

2. Automobile transporation (because of the rise of driverless cars)

3. Education (because of the promise of digital courses on the model of Apple’s iTunesU)

4. Manufacturing (because of the advent of 3-D printing)

5. Various forms of physical labor that will be replaced by robots.

Frey’s analysis is interesting and worth reading, though I think he succumbs to a typical weakness of publicity-hungry futurists (he’s got to lock down those speaking fees, after all) by leading with a projection that’s on the far end of plausibility.

He’s probably most accurate about driverless cars, which are already being developed at a rapid pace in Silicon Valley and which could have profound implications for highway safety, traffic management and personal scheduling (two hours of commuting each day looks much different when that’s time you can use to work in the car). I suspect he’s pretty close to the mark with education too, which will cause chaos in a field that has traditionally been so insulated from affordable competition (just wait for the response from the teachers’ unions).

I’m a little less persuaded about the virtues of 3-D printing, which seems equally innovative and inconvenient. Robotics is a field that perpetually progresses slower than its most ardent defenders imagine (the high-water mark thus far is the Roomba, for crying out loud), so I suspect it won’t make gains quite on the scale that Frey imagines either.

Energy is the most interesting projection and the one with the greatest political implications. I’m more pessimistic than Frey precisely because the government has taken such an active role in the energy sector over the last few decades, which has inevitably led to the widespread misallocation of research capital. That’s a fact that we conservatives too often ignore in our enthusiasm for mocking publicly-funded green energy boondoggles. We actually should be enthusiastic about the development of fuel sources that could outperform conventional resources like gasoline or coal. But that concept — performance — is the key. Any viable replacements would have to be affordable, efficient, convenient, and scalable. The federal fetish for subsidizing alternatives that don’t meet this criteria only delays the day when we’ll have such genuine breakthroughs come to market.