Tech + Health

05.14.14

Millennials Have A Lot of Problems, But Tech Isn't One

Older speakers at a global forum apologizing for technology aren’t plugged in to how Millennials see things.

“We are at war with our beloved children, and we are winning,” declared Boston University economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff at the 44th annual St. Gallen Symposium last week in Switzerland. I attended this Davos-esque convention of 600 global leaders with 200 next-generation leaders, which focused on the “clash of generations” and the state of the world being left to the Millennials.

The verdict: It’s tough being young these days, at least in the United States, where the Pew Research Center notes that “half a century ago, the old were by far the poorest age group in America. Today it is the young.”

Kotlikoff and others confessed a number of of inter-generational sins they’d bequeathed to my generation, from unsustainable pension programs to climate change to child poverty. Then he threw in one that seemed to me an odd item for which to seek absolution: technological innovation.

In listing the crimes being committed in the war on the young, Kotlikoff noted, “It’s being fought every year when we build smarter and smarter machines that eliminate more and more jobs for our kids.” Lady Barbara Judge, chair of the U.K.’s Pension Protection Fund, struck a similar chord in her remarks: “Every time I go to the airport, some other person is removed of their job. Are we technologically putting young people out of jobs and older people out of jobs, and is all change progress?”

The broad consensus among the “leaders of tomorrow” at St. Gallen with whom I spoke? You can apologize for the debt, the financial crisis, and the environment, but we’re just fine with technology and innovation, thank you very much.

There’s no doubt that technology reshapes which jobs are needed and which are not with great speed today. In 2011, President Obama took heat for suggesting that bank tellers and travel agents were a threatened species because of innovations like ATMs, but economists have suggested that as many as  47 percent of U.S. jobs could potentially be computerized.

This isn’t just about Expedia replacing some travel agents or Uber replacing some car dispatchers. The idea of, say, Google’s self-driving cars replacing taxis, or the development of 3-D printers that can construct entire houses, (as the Chinese did this week) may seem to the young to be a step in the right direction, creating economic opportunity through cheaper housing and new jobs for software engineers.

Yet the fact that innovation is a wonderful, exciting thing is cold comfort to the man who feels he has become obsolete. While in the long term, the displaced taxi drivers or construction workers could find themselves in new, even more productive careers, this will likely require the kind of technical education to which not all have access.

But it is precisely because the benefits of innovation can be abstract and diffuse, while the short-term pain is usually more concentrated and obvious, that lots of politicians talk the talk on innovation but fail to walk the walk. Creative destruction is at the heart of innovation and economic dynamism, yet “a lot of people who claim to like innovation like the ‘creative’ but don’t like the ‘destruction’,” said Rob Atkinson, president of The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.

When industry incumbents are threatened by innovation, they often try to influence policy to protect themselves. Take the early 1980s, when Hollywood fought to stop the VCR, comparing it in hearings to a serial killer. Or today, in states like Texas and New Jersey, where state auto dealers have fought to ensure  you can buy a car only through them, keeping Tesla out of the market. When innovation creates new opportunity, the protectors of the status quo love to claim job protection or consumer safety in order to avoid competing, and all too often, policymakers go along with cronyism, wearing the guise of “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

If anything, the problem is not too much innovation, it is too little. Richard Florida at The Atlantic notes that over the last few decades, the number of new firms being created has declined, and today we have more businesses dying than being born. And as a highly wired, entrepreneurial generation used to technological disruption, the young are perhaps most poised to take advantage of a rapidly changing workforce and to develop the kinds of companies and products that can improve quality of life globally.

If older generations wish to apologize for the world they are handing to us, there’s plenty of hand-wringing to be done. But no need to ask forgiveness for the innovation. In fact, we’re hungry for more innovation so that we can more effectively handle the other challenges we face.