Welcome to the Great Disruption, a blog about the changes sweeping the workplace and their implications. You can find a more detailed explanation of my motivations here. Eventually these posts will find their way into a book, but for now I encourage you to comment vigorously. I’ve posted an outline here so you see how the pieces fit together. You can also find previous charts of the day here.

The parable of the bank tellers

At recent meetings I’ve attended on AI and the potential impact of robotics, I’ve heard a lot about how technology is a complement not a substitute for many jobs. At all those meetings, I heard how this is true for bank tellers.

Well, the following post shows that it just ain’t so. The number of bank tellers grew on a boom in branch banking in the runup to the financial crisis of 2007. Lots more branches = more bank tellers.

But in 2007 the boom ended. Since then, the number of bank branches is stable – and teller employment is down 15%. The number of tellers per branch is down by a quarter since “peak teller” in 2007. Teller earnings are down too – especially for higher paid tellers who have been pushed out of a job.

Declining employment and wages correlates closely with the growth in online banking and in particular the rise of mobile banking as smartphones became ubiquitous.

Now that the Gold Rush is over for branch banking, its even clearer that bank tellers face an increasingly difficult future.

And this is important – because bank tellers are important. These are stable jobs that used to pay a middle-class wage for senior experienced staff. They were and are jobs that do not require a college education. They come with benefits. Promotion is available. Training could be accomplished easily and quickly, so these jobs were both an important stepping stone into the job market for lower-skill workers, and themselves offered a ladder to a middle-class life.

There are half a million bank tellers.

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Millennial Economics: The Big Squeeze


Millennials and the workforce
The growing divide – college degrees are necessary but are they sufficient?
The educated workforce? Not so much….
The college cost conundrum


Millennials offer a key testbed for the future of work. They are relatively unprotected by seniority and personal networks, and they are hitting the workforce now.

When I think of Millennials, I imagine highly educated techies running the world from the back of my local Starbucks, or handling their complex social media avatars by voice command while biking to work from their gentrified inner city loft. It’s a future I would find challenging (I don’t especially like Starbucks and don’t really have the body for all that skintight biking gear), but running the world from a coffee shop seems pleasant enough.

Unfortunately, the real world of Millennials is far from that.

Millennials are less engaged in the workforce, have worse jobs, at lower pay, and with fewer benefits than their predecessors. A college degree has become a more important credential even for jobs that did not previously need one, but college costs and associated student debt are rising fast. And house prices – especially in big urban areas where the best jobs are – have moved away from them: for many, home ownership is no longer even an aspiration: a room in a shared house is already a step too far.

This post comes in two parts. The first explores how Millennials connect to work in an environment and in ways that are different from their predecessors. The second (due next week) looks at how Millennials have adapted, and the role played by technology.

These two posts together show how work patterns are changing and how Millennials are responding: they are the canary in the coalmine, the cohort that is most sensitive to change because it is least protected by seniority, established career paths, and strong work-based social networks. They come largely naked into the working world, and they show most plainly the forces that are operating in the labor market.
Continue reading “Millennial Economics: The Big Squeeze”

Introducing The Great Disruption

Writing a book is hard. It requires constant feedback and encouragement, and at the same time solitude and space to write. This online publication and forum is an effort to help square the circle by finding support and critical feedback.

As I finish draft chapters, I plan to publish them here to be downloaded along with posts summarizing the chapter. I’ll also post the book outline so you can see where the chapter fits. The idea is to offer chapters for you to download, read, comment, and respond to. Doing this via a blog site will make this more fun and I hope interactive (of course, if you prefer to send me your rants directly that’s OK too).

This project originally came out of yet another Washington meeting to laud the great work of high tech innovation in America. I’ve been to more of these than I can count, and they are usually at least good for a pleasant nap in the back row.

But this time, this time – I heard once too often how technology will solve everything, how people will be retrained and rescued from the drudgery of rote work and pulled into a sparkling future of programming and the innovation economy.  I heard from White House staff how there are a million programmers now in America, and isn’t that great though of course it will be better once we finish retraining all those workers whose jobs are no longer necessary although  it would be even better if they were women or minorities though we know that will take time.

Hearing well-paid, well-educated people explaining how technological unemployment is just an “adjustment problem” got my goat big time: evidence that the disruption screw is already turning on much of the workforce cannot simply be brushed away with the hand-wavings of those who are the primary beneficiaries of global trade and advanced technology.

I’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time. But that moment was transformative for me.  I decided to research and write a book about how the future is sweeping down upon us, how this is one time where the costs of disruption will be far too great to be pushed off onto a few now-unemployed factory workers in Ohio. I called it The Great Disruption for good reason. In it, I will make the case that the combined power of rapidly advancing technology, globalization, ever more efficient corporate structures and strategies, and demographic shifts will sweep us into fast-rising and largely uncharted waters. Change will be both national and international in scale, it will affect all sectors of the economy and a large majority of current jobs, and it will happen at a speed to make us blink.

It turns out, of course, that this is a much larger and more complex topic than I had anticipated. It includes economics, sociology, philosophy, a good deal of science, law, and business management. And of course politics – lots of politics. But as I developed the arguments and ground through the research, it has become clearer than ever that my original instinct was correct. I thought that the pain and anger implicit in a major social disruption would surface politically at a later date – in four years, or eight, or even longer. I was wrong about that. But I don’t think I’m wrong about the extent of change, the speed and scope of change, or about the drivers that we seem powerless to identify let alone influence.

William Gibson once said “the future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed.” Transformative change is happening all around us right now, while we are paying attention to our kids, out mortgage, and our jobs. It is of course affecting our kids, our housing, and above all our jobs in ways that we can feel but can’t quite put together. The task of this book is to identify and explain what is happening, to those workers and to work more generally. and to find both long term strategies and short/medium term tactics that can help us to manage what I believe to be the predominant challenge of our era.

I am not an expert in many of the disciplines needed to make sense of the Great Disruption and to develop policies and philosophies that will help us manage change instead of being overwhelmed by it. So I need help, which is why I am publishing draft chapters on this Great Disruption blog. I hope you will be critical. I hope you will contribute. I hope you will bring to the table your own concerns and insights. And I hope you find what’s going on here interesting and powerful enough to stay around.