Widespread layoffs of blue-collar workers met with disdain from the white-collar class, who are now beginning to understand their struggle

In “The True Believer,” Eric Hoffer wrote, “Nothing is so unsettling to a social order as the presence of a mass of scribes without suitable employment and an acknowledged status.”

We’re about to find out just how right he was.

From the 1970s to roughly now, offshoring and automation gobbled up blue-collar factory-type jobs.

Auto companies laid off workers by the thousands and sent factories to Canada and Mexico.

In 1977, on what Salena Zito calls “the day that destroyed the working class,” Youngstown Sheet and Tube laid off 5,000 workers.

Within months U.S. Steel had shut down 16 plants and Jones & Laughlin laid off further thousands.

This went on for decades in industry after industry, with everything from textiles to semiconductor manufacturing closing or moving offshore.

White-collar types were notably unsympathetic, for the most part.

Berkeley professor and Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich declared the future belonged to the “symbolic analysts” — people who, in the words of a Steve Earle song, use their brains and not their hands.

Laid-off coal miners in the last decade were contemptuously told to “learn to code.”

But the worm has turned. Google is looking at laying off 30,000 people it expects to replace with artificial intelligence.

The Wall Street Journal reports that large corporations across the board are planning to lay off white-collar workers.

Investor Brian Wang notes ChatGPT is already causing white-collar job loss.

In fact, ChatGPT can even code.� Sometimes its code is quite good. Sometimes it’s not so good.

(Though God knows, the latter is true of much human-generated software code too.) It can write press releases, ad copy, catalog descriptions, news stories and essays, speeches, encyclopedia entries, customer-inquiry responses and more. It can generate art on demand that’s suitable for book covers, advertisements and magazine illustrations.

Again, sometimes these items are quite good, and sometimes they’re not, but there’s a lot of less-than-stellar human work in those categories too.

Learning to code is bad advice now.

And the kicker is, AI is getting better all the time.

ChatGPT-4 has demonstrated “human-level performance” on many benchmarks.

It can pass bar exams, diagnose disease and process images and text. The improvement since ChatGPT-3.5 is significant.

People, on the other hand, are staying pretty much the same.

The bad news for the symbolic analysts is they’re playing on AI’s turf.

When you deal with ideas and data and symbols, you’re working with bits, and AI is pretty good at working with bits.

People losing their jobs to AI is just the tip of the iceberg.

In the next decade, lots more people — possibly (gulp) including professors like me — will be facing potential replacement by machines.

It turns out that using your brain and not your hands isn’t as good a move as it may have once seemed.

People who work with their hands have some advantages.

If you want something done in the material world, you still need people.

(I replaced a toilet seat some time back while pondering these issues and reflected that neither an AI nor a worker in Bangalore could have taken that job.)

A lot of young Americans, especially males, are forgoing traditional college to enter the trades, as welders, plumbers, HVAC technicians and the like.

That’s probably smart. AI won’t be able to replace those jobs.

As Brian Wang notes, robots probably will, one day — but that day is nowhere near as close.

So the bottom line is a lot of white-collar workers are likely to be replaced by machines soon; the fate of blue-collar workers, in a twist, will likely be better for the foreseeable future.

It’s a lot more difficult to manipulate atoms than bits — good news for plumbers and auto mechanics.

Some of them might even tell out-of-work analysts to “learn to plumb” — but, as we saw a couple years ago, people who told laid-off journalists on Twitter to “learn to code” were accused of “hate speech.

And that’s the difference between what happens when tradesmen are laid off and when members of the gentry class lose their sustenance.

Unlike blue-collar workers, who got little sympathy, these laid off white-collar workers will have more clout.

Expect them to create much more of a stink than those laid-off steelworkers managed to back in 1977.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.

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