Opinion: We are largely here because internet technology may have improved global communication, but it has decimated American jobs. Let this be a wake up call
Two months ago, I moved from Israel back to the United States. I will admit that, like many in the media, I have been a Democrat my whole life. While I didn’t think Hillary was going to defeat Donald Trump by a wide margin, I was fooled by polling data on sites like 538 and the echo chambers of my friends and Facebook that Hillary was going to win. After living 6 years under Benjamin Netanyahu and experiencing Israel’s growing racism and xenophobia firsthand, I was looking forward to going back to the United States.
Never have I ever been so sad to say that I was wrong.
There is a reason that Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” resonated with the American public. Yes, it was easy for liberals to scoff at its somewhat racist implications, yearning for a 1950s America when the economy boomed while segregation was legal. But for large swaths of white America, many of whose jobs vanished with the crash of the auto industry and have since been automated or exported, you can’t blame them for wanting to feel “great again.” Beyond decades-long wage stagnation for various reasons, including the diminishing power of unions and increasing income inequality, the tech world’s lack of wide scale employment is largely to blame for their worsening labor prospects.
Before the 2008 economic crash, the auto industry (which, in this definition, included anyone working in anything automobile related, including taxi drivers) supplied 10 percent of American jobs. By 2014, not only had auto employment gone down more than 32% over the past 15 years, wages of auto workers had also declined more than 20% across the board in comparison to the decade prior, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, the tech industry employs about 6.7 million people in the United States, accounting for approximately 2% of the population and 4% of the workforce — more than 33% of Americans aged 16 and over have left the workforce altogether, the highest number since 1978. While hardware tech companies such as Amazon (135,000 full-time US employees) and Apple (76,000 full-time US employees) employ a large number of people, including low-skill workers, they do so under worse labor conditions than the union auto jobs of yore. Many Apple workers in the US are subcontractors and full-time, low wage Amazon employees face steep job expectations and “zero job security,” according to a number of employees.
Beyond Amazon and Apple, however, most of the tech economy consists of small internet startups that employ few people. As of 2015, Google only had 61,814 full-time employees, while Facebook had 12,691. Even Instagram, a world famous tech company, merely had 13 full-time employees when it was bought by Facebook in 2012. To add insult to injury, most of these coveted jobs require some level of higher education and are out of reach for many working class and lower income people.
When the fields tech “disrupts” come to bite it in the ass
The rage that helped propel Trump to the presidency also should not comes as a surprise considering Silicon Valley’s obsession with “disrupting” inefficient — and largely working class — industries. Just take a look at Uber: It is proudly dismantling the taxi industry, one of the last stalwarts of unionized work, not to mention its fights against granting employee status to its drivers. IBM, Google, and every other computer or smartphone maker are touting the value a personal assistant will give the consumer, without thinking about the labor implications of all that automation.
Limited employment prospects in the industry come back to harm society in other ways, too. Facebook’s decision to fire its human moderators of Trending has been a disaster. Yet Facebook insists, much like Uber does with respect to its drivers, that since it is “only” a platform connecting producers and consumers, it is out of their hands.
While we’re talking about automation, The Associated Press recently reported that a whopping 88% of lost US jobs were taken by robots and increased homegrown efficiencies, not outsourced work. Many industries have suffered in the internet age, including journalism, and a growing number of sectors are at risk of being replaced by robots. It is actually insulting that the best idea of Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s best known accelerator, to address this has been analyzing the feasibility of a universal basic income, as if they are admitting that there is no way the tech sector can create more jobs.
This is all to say that our tech world, which has created Facebook and increasing self-reinforced silos and inequality, is often at fault for Trump voters seeking a candidate who spoke to their anger and desire for work. Until we can figure out how to be a job generator like the auto industry used to be, our country will not heal. If rising income inequality didn’t wake you up before, maybe 4 years of a Trump presidency will.