Why Barack Obama Is Worried About the Future of Work

May 10, 2017, 12:12 PM UTC

Technological advances like artificial intelligence have the potential to solve some of the world’s biggest problems like climate change, but they could also create massive social unrest by widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

That was one of the messages presented by former President Barack Obama on Tuesday at Seeds&Chips, a global food and innovation summit in Milan, Italy. It was his first speech to an international audience since leaving the White House.

“The issue of both inequality within countries and between countries is absolutely critical,” he said, adding that if we don’t pay attention to the increasing divisions that exist there “will be a backlash and resistance to technology and change and globalization because people will feel left behind.” If people feel like they don’t have control over their lives, “then they will resist efforts to deal with climate change” because their basic needs aren’t met.

“It’s a luxury to worry about climate change,” Obama said.

He noted that technology is making many sectors of the economy far less labor intensive and far more capital intensive—what he called a major problem in both the advanced and developing worlds. Since work is about dignity and status in society as well as income, he said, this is one of the things he worries about the most.

Obama said he was certain that unemployed young men in many countries in the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia is a major contributor to radicalization, conflict, and terrorism. “That lack of meaning and purpose will channel itself in unhealthy ways,” he aded.

Obama pointed to driverless cars as an example of the potential and challenges for a changing workforce. Autonomous vehicles will be safer and more convenient, he said, but in the U.S. there are 3 million or 4 million people who currently make a living driving who would be out of work. “We have to anticipate those things now,” he said.

One of his goals as president—and where he said he admittedly was not entirely successful—was thinking about the sectors of the economy that would be eliminated by technology 20 or 30 years from now.

Obama said that the solution would “require reorganization of the social compact” in which work gets spread around more, rather than having a small percentage of people working 80 to 90 hours a week and making huge incomes on one side and redundant workers who have a hard time supporting their families on the other. “That’s not a sustainable mechanism for democracy,” he said.

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