During the big Recession in 2008 I saw a lot of young patients who had lost jobs or were ‘on the bench’. They had families to support and EMIs to pay on their homes and cars. They would come in to talk, share and perhaps find a little clarity. There wasn’t much I could actually do to reduce their distress apart from listen and try to help them find some hope, or prescribe medicines if anxiety/depression were unbearable, and sleep elusive. I was glad when the stream of pink-slipped people finally dried up over the next couple of years.
A few years later there was a surge in patients who had been told to ‘re-skill’ if they didn’t want to be laid off. Most of them were in the forties. Specialists, including me, are in a sort of a competency trap because we have lost all our other skills, save the ones we use every day. For instance, I’m not sure how well I could suture up a laceration or do a lumbar puncture, both of which I did very well earlier. If I were given this ultimatum to re-skill I would be totally lost.
I hear there are bootcamps to ‘upskill’ engineers, i.e. transform them from mechanical engineers to coders, so I suppose it works for some. Maybe it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks sometimes, especially if there’s a looming risk of job loss or being passed over for promotion.
I was shocked that people could be thrown out of jobs the way old animals are put out to pasture! Until I met these patients, I took it for granted that people learnt on the job all the time, gaining experience and new skills, keeping abreast of new developments through discussions with colleagues, reading journals and attending conferences, and occasionally attending a workshop on a specific topic. That’s mainly how we still brush up our skills. Of course, we now learn of new developments in our field as soon as they are published online, unlike in years past when we had to wait to read journals in a library, or subscribe.
Disruption, which used to mean an annoying interruption until recently, is now something wonderful to be applauded. On the positive side, disruption creates new markets and brings in more revenue. Does it mean that if you aren’t disruptive, you are stagnant and not very useful to your company, so you get laid off?
As AI replaces people at jobs, developers tell us it will create more jobs. But they will be different jobs, and they won’t be for the people who lost their jobs, isn’t it? The new jobs will go to people who can program and operate robots, right? Jobs gained > jobs lost is true only if it doesn’t matter that the people who lost their jobs either slid below the poverty line or committed suicide after poisoning their little kids when life became impossible. You can’t substitute one set of people for another claiming that the net number of jobs has increased, can you?
I do understand that AI has its uses. For example, ophthalmologists can diagnose diabetic retinopathy earlier than they have been doing until now, thanks to AI. If it is detected at an earlier stage, there’s a better chance of preventing visual impairment in people with longstanding diabetes. Here the AI is assisting the doctor, not replacing him. I’m not against AI. It is good tech, I agree.
But young people without the educational qualifications for sophisticated jobs like these also need to work and earn a living. The picture above is of an itinerant scissors-grinder. He visits my street once every two-three months. I’m surprised this occupation still exists! And below is a picture of a man selling cotton candy in traffic jams. Every time there is a recession in the world the lives of these people – informal sector – are affected but they don’t get stimulus packages from the government. How do they manage?
I watched the South Korean movie ‘Parasite’ recently. The dynamics between the Park family and the Kim family can happen on a much larger scale if joblessness – and the widening income inequality between the rich and poor – continues to worsen. It’s not that these feelings don’t exist in people now, perhaps they haven’t reached the surface and erupted yet. At the end of the movie one does wonder who are the parasites, the Parks or the Kims, or is it a bizarre symbiosis.
Jeff Bezos was in India a few days ago. Hundreds of traders and owners of small businesses gathered to confront him and protest Amazon’s pricing and selling practices. They shouted slogans and held placards saying ‘Bezos go back’. Will Bezos ever understand how precarious the lives of thousands of small traders and retailers are, struggling as they are to support their families and, in many cases, old parents and others as well? I guess not. Nor is it his problem to solve.
Last week I bought a paper cutter. I had a choice: order on Amazon and have it delivered at my doorstep for Rs.670, or walk to the store ten minutes away and buy it for Rs.750. I walked to the store. There were two young men running the business together. When I casually mentioned that it was available on Amazon for Rs.670 their faces fell and one of them said, “We can’t afford to do that. Amazon is undercutting us”. I felt sorry for them. I wish they could run their business the old-fashioned way. But things change. Like the classic case of the Kodak film company going bankrupt once digital photography came into existence, I suppose the old has to give way to the new.
So, now, what happens to all these unfortunate people deprived of a source of income? I don’t suppose there is a generic answer to this question. Maybe each individual has to use his ingenuity and talent to create an agreeable world for himself. He has to pick himself up by the bootstraps and start afresh after each blow dealt by new developments. That’s what actually happens as far as I can see. People are unbelievably resilient and hopeful, especially when they have children, a careworn wife and old parents to care for. Unfortunately, there is no economist, government or godfather, only planning and hard work – and luck – that take people where they want to be.