The Second Machine Age

Book Review by Charles Lehman

THE SECOND MACHINE AGE: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014) by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee


The Second Machine Age provides an engaging, detailed and persuasive argument that computers and digitization are the beginning of the second major transformation of society that will equal that of the Industrial Revolution. Drawing on extensive historical, economic, societal and technological research and theories, coupled with visits to technology companies and innovators, the authors conclude that computers will soon immensely support the mental aspects of labor as greatly as the steam engine and electricity affected physical capabilities. This will result in the transformation of what we define as “work” and eventually society itself.


Changes over the Past 20 Years

Computer capacity is expanding exponentially which means artificial intelligence is on the horizon. Furthermore, more people all over the world are connected to exchange information and ideas due to lower costs of smart phones and increased network expansion. Organizational processes have now been redesigned and implemented using automation resulting in an improved way of accomplishing business. For example, online sales are now an important part of the retail industry.


These developments have now set the stage for huge unforeseen automated advances well beyond such applications as driverless cars, speech recognition and language translation, sight and hearing for the blind and deaf, quickest driving routes, game playing, etc. Robots have made major advances beyond the current somewhat crude assembly line machines and can now solve problems, create and build goods, and provide service in ways we never imagined just 50 years ago.


The Economic Impact and Human Workers

The authors explain how these technological changes are already playing a major role in such economic issues as income inequality, globalization, outdated economic measures, stagnant wages and Big Data.


The authors expect unemployment and underemployment to substantially worsen as accelerating technological change becomes faster and more widespread. Individuals will need to be able to adapt to the new technologies as they spread into all occupational fields, and some people (namely our clients) will realize they may have to change careers if automation eventually reduces the need for human labor.


However, the authors do not predict the end of all human work, feeling there will always be a need for humans (working together with machines) and control. Machines cannot completely match capabilities that only humans possess such as creativity, complex systems understanding, and problem solving. For example, computers may soon provide exhaustive medical diagnosis using reserves of health information, but there will always be a need for doctors to assess and identify non-routine, unexpected illnesses.


Because work provides an important sense of purpose and structure beyond strict compensation, individuals will need encouragement to stay employed even at low or falling wages as automation takes over. The authors recommend a national policy of reducing taxes on wages and salaries, even to the extent of providing government payments to those making very low incomes.


To keep up with and work with the machines and these technological advances, innovation is needed. This leads to the author’s support for entrepreneurship (they find startups to be net job creators in the economy), immigration of talented foreigner workers, and emphasis on teaching creativity.


Changes in How Career Counselors Provide Help

In terms of job matching, the authors contend that better systems will be readily achievable to ensure the most qualified applicant is hired. This will come about from the ongoing research by social media companies, the vast amount of data now available, and the special assessments under development that measure applicable skills much better than through interviews or resumes. Counselors will need to become aware of the new procedures as they develop so they can advise their clients on the best application approaches and coach them on ways to stay competitive in this ever-changing market.


Realizing most occupations will eventually be subject to some type of automation as computers, digitations and robots rapidly advance, the authors identify a number of non-routine jobs less likely to be affected for the foreseeable future. These include nurses and health aides, genetic counselors, computer data scientists, gardeners, janitors, receptionists, customer service representatives, and top level managers. Even these, however, may suffer wage stagnation as displaced workers from other occupations compete for their jobs. Flexibility and adaptability, career skills essential to success in the world-of-work, will become even more critical in the future. Career counselors will need to assist their clients in developing these skills and helping guide them through possible career transitions.


The Review

Much of the book is persuasively written and well argued. However their optimism that things will “work out” as these massive changes occur may be too optimistic. For one thing they may be underestimating the national political climate -- have they forgotten that federal government job retraining programs have remained virtually unchanged over the last 15 years with their appropriations declining year after year? And they do not explain how such needed skills as creativity can be more effectively taught.


This is a fascinating and readily understandable book addressing the future of work and our society. As counselors, educators and members of society it is well worth the time to read and contemplate whether or not you agree with their forecasts or policy recommendations, and to consider how these impending changes to both technology and the world of work will have an impact on our lives, our clients’ lives, and our practice.




Charles LehmanCharles Lehman manages an economic consulting company in Albuquerque NM and is a charter member of the New Mexico Career Development Association. He has served on the NCDA Board of Trustees. He can be reached at clehman@nm.net


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Joyce Malyn-Smith   on Monday 06/02/2014 at 10:55 AM

After following the work of Murnane and Levy who first introduced me to the changing workplace due to increased uses of computers and automation, I look forward to reading this book as an extension of the issues they raised, particularly if it explores in more depth how these changes will affect current and future workers. Once we define better the skills/knowledge future workers will need, educators can help students begin to build those skills early in life - and the capacity of future workers to succeed in this new world. Arizona's Skill Standards Board has addressed some of these issues in their Essential Workplace Skills published about two years ago. It would be interesting to see if there are commonalities between their work and the ideas put forward in this book. I will read this The Second Machine Age with interest to see if it helps find some answers to the essential skills/knowledge questions.

Nancy Miller   on Wednesday 08/06/2014 at 02:41 PM

Thank you for the book review, Charles. It does seem optimistic, as you said considering the current business climate. Simon Head gives a less optimistic view of what is already happening in the workplace because of technology in his book, "Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans."

Career counselors and educators have work to do in advocating for preparedness for the technological world of work. As machines get more advanced, we need to make sure humans are even smarter and ahead of the game.

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