Robots Are Destroying the Middle Class

Can anything be done?


The single greatest structural threat to our cozy Western democracy isn’t terrorism. It’s not China. And it’s not Communism. No, it’s probably the fact that the middle class is quickly disappearing — due, in large part, to technology.


Statistics show that income disparity in the United States is at the highest levels since the Gilded Age — that is, the time of robber barons and oil monopolies, and the period right before the Great Depression. Usually, that’s blamed on the fact that the richest are getting much richer, while middle class wages stagnate.

Our friends at GOOD have an interesting point of view on why:

The hard truth?and you don’t see it addressed in news reports?is that the middle class is disappearing in large part because technology is rendering middle-class skills obsolete. …

… Meanwhile, personal robotics, the kind we’ve been promised by science fiction, are getting closer to reality. Researchers at a Silicon Valley?based company called Willow Garage have been teaching their PR2 robot to fold laundry, play pool, and fetch beers for its engineers (you can see it in action on YouTube). The PR2 isn’t ready for the commercial market, but it’s closer than you think. Willow Garage has made the code for the PR2’s operating system entirely open, which means scientists and hobbyists all over the world can contribute to its development, and it recently started selling PR2 models for $400,000 each.

Keenan Wyrobek, a codirector of the Personal Robotics Program at Willow Garage, told me that the company’s robots might soon be able to help our aging population stay independent for a few extra years by doing simple tasks around the house. That would be great, but it would reduce the number of nurses and assisted-living attendants we would otherwise need.

The writer, Andrew Price, reaches no firm conclusions about what can be done. But he does hint at a sobering reality: Modern education, with its emphasis on humanities and literature, was built upon an economy that worked differently. It was meant to educate the elite, rather than the middle class. Today, it hardly serves the middle class, because having a degree in english or philosophy hardly prepares you for any sort of decent-paying job. So come what may, we’ll have to change education first if we ever hope to recreate the bygone middle-class.

Read the rest of Andrew’s post here. And afterwards, burn your liberal arts diploma. We already have.

[Illustration by Jennifer Daniel, courtesy of GOOD]

About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.