There’s an old joke that I can’t help but remember.
A lighthouse keeper is set to finally retire. The local township throws a party, thanks him for his service, and sends him on his way.
A few months later, the mayor of their little town calls him asking for his help. The lighthouse isn’t working properly and the ships in the area risk running aground. The mayor promises to pay whatever is needed because they desperately need this working again. Reluctantly, the old man returns to his lighthouse to find several young engineers and technicians struggling to figure out how to turn the light back on.
He taps one of the panels a little, presses his ear to the wall, and then asks for a hammer. He locates a specific spot and thwacks it with the blunt end of the tool. The lighthouse springs to life.
The next week, the town clerk receives a bill from the old lighthouse keeper for $5000. Enraged, the mayor calls him demanding an explanation for such an enormous bill for so little work.
“Five thousand dollars to hit a light with a hammer?” he yells. “That was barely five minutes of work!”
“Hitting it only costs $1.” Replied the old keeper. “Knowing where to hit is $4999.”
It wasn’t that funny but it illustrated a point.
In the midst of a labour crisis where businesses are desperate to fill vacancies and many run at half capacity, we don’t seem terribly interested in making the most of the people we have. I’ve been amazed at the wealth of knowledge and experience that is flushed away on a daily basis when we have our increasingly regular retirement parties for older colleagues. We throw a little party, have some underwhelming cake from the local supermarket, hand them a watch (sometimes, it isn’t clear what makes one watch worthy), and send them on their way. Economically this is nothing short of a tragedy to say nothing of the pathetic thanks for decades of service.
Low birth rates, a rapidly aging population, and a massive retreat of working age people from the workforce since the Pandemic of Totally Unknown Origin have further diminished our previously questionable ability to maintain our standard of living, let alone better it. The solution seems to be pinning all of our hopes for a decent future on technological innovation. That new strides made in, among other things, AI development will take the place of millions of absentee workers while somehow simultaneously not increasing the existing unemployment rate exponentially and crashing our economies with remarkable speed.
Let’s grant for a moment the fantasy that we can have our cake and eat it too. That the future will be a borderline post scarcity world where we can frolic freely in green fields devoid of air pollution or carcinogens in our food while advanced AIs tend to our every need. Getting there will require an obscene amount of data both on the part of those building the systems and those inputting the information gleaned over decades in order to teach our overlord caretakers.
The aforementioned retired colleagues carry more knowledge and experience in their minds than can accurately be described. It is a wellspring of information that can only be garnered over decades of experience and its worth is incalculable. In their various lines of work, they have seen so many different situations that many businesses find themselves seriously shorthanded upon their departure. There are archaic systems and esoteric requests that only they have ever had the opportunity to master. There are machines only they are qualified to operate. And some things just need to be hit in the right spot to get them to work again.
I am by no means advocating the forced bio mechanical symbiosis between machine and old man for the purposes of uploading their consciousnesses to some grand supercomputer. There are ethical implications to consider beyond the terrifying prospect of a networked hivemind of old people controlling our thermostats. More importantly, the notion of our societies and multinational conglomerates (assuming one can tell the difference) being controlled by machines and our ability to let this happen without massive societal upheaval are extremely low.
So in returning to a far more likely scenario for the future where we have too many elderly in need of care and not nearly enough people to provide it let alone advance themselves, the missed opportunity remains. AI will be around but it won’t make a Roddenberryesque utopia. We will still need people to do things and computers to do other things. That overwhelming wealth of knowledge and experience is still being wasted. While that experience won’t save us from the demographic collapse that most countries are facing to one degree or another, the efficiency generated by that experience is one of our few tools to combat it. Fewer people doing things is inevitable. Those fewer need to do it better and faster to have any hope of making up the difference. They aren’t, and the few who could teach them how are on their way out.
And those large companies still regularly send people on their way with a pittance of a pension (defined contribution only) and a piece of cake. Mine is no exception.
Briefly, I want to tell you about Martina. She has been an administrative assistant in my workplace for over thirty years. She is as much a fixture of the office as some of the furniture. To be blunt, many of us are lost without her ability to use old systems and navigate complicated scenarios that leave us baffled and her merely searching her memory for the last time she encountered and fixed it. The search rarely lasts long and she is without a doubt the single most important cog in the machine for keeping our productivity high.
No one ever asks her what would make things run smoother around here. Upper management is happy to give her a plaque thanking her for her long running career with us that she proudly displays at the bottom of one of her unused drawers. But they never tap her on the shoulder and ask what needs changing. What slows her and her colleagues down. What just doesn’t work properly and what used to before being upgraded unnecessarily and at great cost. Before she leaves for good, some paper pusher will conduct a phone exit interview that no one will record.
Martinas across our society are retiring in record numbers and with them vanishes decades of invaluable experience. Collectively, generations worth. Our very own is wrapping up her last year before calling it quits for good. She’s the only one who knows where to hit our multi million dollar machine but no one has asked and she certainly isn’t coming back.