Futurist Sees ‘The End of the World as We Know It for Average Person’

Israeli Roey Tzezana says middle-class jobs will vanish, polarization between rich and poor will grow – and it will happen faster than you think

Sivan Klingbail
Job seekers standing line during the Career Expo job fair, in Portland, Oregon, March 7, 2012.
Job seekers standing line during the Career Expo job fair, in Portland, Oregon, March 7, 2012. Credit: AP
Sivan Klingbail

In Providence, Rhode Island where Dr. Roey Tzezana now lives, signs on the street advertise “Rent a Son.” The signs are put up by people offering services that a son is supposed to do for his parents: shovel the snow, hang pictures and come for a visit. Someone looking in from the outside might think that this is a brilliant initiative – after all, the population is aging and many of the elderly live alone. Why be just a handyman if you can be a son for rent?

But Tzezana, an Israeli “future studies” researcher, who studies the job markets of the years to come, too, sees the signs as a glimpse into the future. Tzezana, a researcher at the Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center of Tel Aviv University, and a research fellow at the Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative of Brown University, says such services are exactly the jobs that those who can’t find a place in technological professions will be forced into – and some are being forced into them now.

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This forecast is not good news for most people: The polarization in the job market will only grow and the inequality between those who buy the new smart machines, those who build them, and those who cannot – will only widen.

In an interview with TheMarker, Tzezana sets aside all the most recent reports, such as that of the World Economic Forum, which shows that in addition to the forecasts of millions of jobs being eliminated, new jobs are created too – because this, he says, is simply the wrong debate.

“The deeper and more interesting questions are not whether new jobs will be created, but what is the pace that old jobs disappear and new jobs open up, or what is the pace at which the tasks the jobs require change and create a demand for new expertise, specializations and skills. The speed of closing tasks and opening new tasks is changing, and it is overwhelming,” he says.

“All the reports of the McKinsey consulting firm talk about technological progress requiring ‘up skills’ and the ability to adapt; a view that is possible to develop, learn and grow and a way of thinking of an entrepreneur – all the time looking for opportunities. All these are wonderful slogans that the large international consulting companies spread and there is a reason for it – the profile of the employees in these organizations is that of young workers who learn all the time,” says Tzezana. But he points out that the researchers who are happy to talk about adopting new capabilities, lifelong learning and all sorts of other buzzwords that are heard everywhere – do not ask themselves whether it is appropriate for everyone.

Over the hill

Many already recognize the reality that Tzezana is describing: “We aren’t talking about a 45-year-old employee who lost a job and no one want his skills. Certainly there are people who can learn new things at any age. But how many of these people are there? Most of those in their 50s are sure they know and think they deserve to enjoy the fruits of their efforts and the seeds they sowed – that experience has value.”

Recently the Boston Consulting Group released a report on global trends in future jobs and found that the jobs of the future are ones such as waiting on tables, cleaning, child care and nursing care – and the groups of job skills with the highest rate of growth after digital skills is social services and education.

BCG analyzed millions of job ads over three years and found that some professions have a high growth rate without being related to digital skills, such as child care, animal care, fitness training and behavioral analysis skills, “are all related to the growing pursuit of general well-being and leisure.” But if you ask Tzezana, this is part of the problem.

“We see large polarization of the job market, in other words a continuing rise in polarization,” he says, mentioning what Andrew Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England, said back in 2015. Even though technology has created many new jobs in recent centuries, at the same time it has led to polarization too, those with jobs requiring expertise, preferably in the exact sciences, have higher wages, while those who make do with a lower level of expertise receive lower pay. This is a result of the continual inflow of professionals in the middle whose jobs are disappearing because of automation – those with a medium level of expertise.

Haldane asks, justifiably, whether we want to become a society with extreme inequality with a small number of super-rich and a great number of poor, which we are already seeing in the United States, says Tzezana. We are seeing people moving from the middle class, for example manufacturing workers whose factories closed down because the work moved to China. Now factories are returning to the United States, and this doesn’t help anyone because they are automated, he says.

A factory that in the past employed 1,000 workers needs only 100 today. Those with high-level skills know how to operate the machines that replace the workers, but the workers who in the past were responsible for the machines or who did the same task as the machines need to find a new job. “They are going to work in services – for Uber or renting out apartments,” says Tzezana.

So this is entrepreneurship, creativity? An excellent example of the entrepreneurial spirit, no?

“The salary of someone who moves into the service professions drops dramatically – sometimes a quarter of the previous salary, and this is not the problem of just one or two people,” says Tzezana. “When a lot of people experience this drop, we are talking about an economic crisis: It is not just a problem only for those who can’t pay their mortgages. Sixty percent of the sales of most companies are to the general public and if the public can’t afford to buy a new computer, the entire economy enters a crisis.”

Penty of McJobs

So low unemployment doesn’t tell the real story?

“The level of unemployment in the United States is the lowest ever, but many of the new jobs only keep those filling them alive – so they don’t complain too much. In general, from the 1950s we have been seeing that the productivity compared to the effort invested has risen at a stupefying pace – that is how the world will become a better place. To produce more with less.”

“But if until the 1970s the hourly pay for an employee rose at the same rate – a relationship existed between productivity and hourly wages – 40 to 50 years ago a dramatic change began. Productivity continued to grow, between 1973 and 2014 it rose by 74% – but the hourly pay rose only by 9%. It’s amazing. My explanation for this process is that at the same time the machines that were capable of being programmed came in, so did flexible work. You needed the average worker from the middle class less and it was possible to switch to machines to close factories and move them to China, where wages are lower,” says Tzezana.

Productivity is up.

“This figure is the end of the world for the average people. It reflects a rather depressing picture: The state and the economy are advancing by storm – but the workers are almost not benefitting from this progress and are left behind. It is almost a catastrophe,” he says. “It doesn’t match the ideas of democracy because democracy is based on the middle class. It is harder for workers from the lower class to vote in an intelligent manner and make intelligent decisions. It is a situation that over time does not enable the continuation of democracy as we know it.”

This is just the beginning, says Tzezana. In a few more years we will be nearing a world in which machines will do everything at the level of human beings, and after a little while longer – at a higher level. “And then all the trends and forecasts will be scrambled. This is the point of singularity after which it will be hard to estimate what will happen – because we have never been in such a situation in human history.”

Nonetheless, Tzezana is trying to sketch a picture of the future. According to a survey conducted in the past few years among hundreds of artificial intelligence researchers, the Asian researchers believe that within 40 years artificial intelligence will do all the tasks that humans are capable of doing. This means that in another five or 10 years we will already see the changes in progress.

Don’t we see it already?

“We see it, but not completely. Many of the jobs have already opened, and someone who is hard-working and intelligent will find work, and in the worst case will manage barely to support themselves. Artificial intelligence knows how to give medical advice better than doctors,” he says. Tzezana says the claim that people will still have a “human” advantage is wrong: We need to take into account technological developments, such as computers being able to understand people and the creation of avatars on the screen and in virtual reality. These avatars will be able in the next decade or two to provide more sensitive and considerate service than any human service representative can.

Status symbol

We will continue to buy services from other people, but not necessarily because we need them – more because it is a status symbol, Tzezana continues. In medicine, the poor will receive a higher level of treatment from robots and machines. The rich will receive the same treatment, while the person representing the machine will be a human doctor – who will say what the computer does and provide the feeling that a person is there. His role will be mostly to be an actor, a celebrity. People will come to him not because he is the best doctor, but because those who get services from him say about themselves: “I’m good.” Tzezana says this will be true for many other professions.

The four winners will be those who control the machines, the programmers and owners – the rich; those who have built up a reputation, so the rich will want to receive services from them; those who manage the teams and machines; and the fourth group, the entrepreneurs.

What’s the solution?

“No one knows. What is clear is that it will be a period of large and fast changes, and it is a bit like asking me: What is the solution in the Industrial Revolution for all the remaining farmers. They will not stay farmers. In the short term, maybe it would be better to ask what is the solution that individuals can adopt so they have a better chance for work that will pay enough to support themselves respectably.”

The answer is what is called the entrepreneurial spirit, learning all the time – lifelong learning. To find 20 or 30 minutes a day to listen to podcasts, take online courses, even if you don’t get grades or credit for them, he says. To expand your knowledge so the minute something new comes out you can jump on it before everyone and always remain a bit ahead of the crowd.

The second thing is to know how to work with computers – not work on a computer, but with and alongside a computer, Tzezana says. Computers will become our collaborators in the coming decades. Governments must take a number of steps too. They must try to move as many people as possible to professions that require a high level of expertise and training, such as computer science, statistics and the exact sciences.

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