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  • Kayla Hartman

How AI Flips the Promise of Meritocracy into a Threat

AI is today’s something in the water for the job market. YouTube video titles such as “AI Is Cutting Jobs With An UNEXPECTED Group Of Workers” tell viewers that it's an existential threat waiting to take away not just jobs, but white-collar jobs specifically. 

The impact of generative artificial intelligence, typically referred to just as AI, has been contested over the past few years as the technology has become more accessible and convenient to use. Despite the fears of massive amounts of job replacement for “highly skilled” workers, most evidence suggests the actual effect will be that AI actually alters the duties and increases the productivity of certain white-collar jobs rather than replaces them; it acts as a complement. 

The role of AI as a complement and how that affects wages and the demand for certain workers can be explained using the concept of skill-biased technical change. This is the idea that when technology in the workplace shifts to a form that benefits high-skilled workers, it causes their wages to increase. So, when AI increases the productivity of certain workers, they are given higher wages and a larger demand for those types of workers. For example, it has been speculated that lawyers were soon to become obsolete due to the “reading” and “writing” abilities of AI. However, most of the evidence points to them actually benefiting heavily from the complementary nature of AI. Lawyers will still exist, just differently. 

So far, the general trend is that AI is complementary for those with a college degree and the least detrimental to the wages of those in extremely physical or highly human-interaction-based jobs. The people left out of these subsets of the workforce are middle-skill workers whose jobs are more at risk of being taken by people trained to work with AI and should not be told to retrain or be left to low wages. Furthermore, those whose jobs are not complemented by AI should not see a stagnation in wages either. Yet U.S. meritocracy tells us otherwise. 

Meritocracy, in the U.S. today, is the idea that we get what we deserve. The lawyer got a high-status job that will in the future change as a job complemented by AI because of how hard they worked. That safety and stability is their reward. An elementary school teacher, for example, must not have worked as hard and now faces the threat of a lower wage. It’s a concept similar to the fantasy of the American Dream; by committing to hard work you will eventually reap the rewards. 

With the knowledge that the socioeconomic positions we’re born into are massive factors of our career trajectories, an individual can say that this is “not fair.” Yet the reality of the teacher’s options in terms of finding a new job is “too bad”: if your job deteriorates, you have to reinvent yourself to find a new one and incur the entry-level wages that come with being brand new in a field.

A main critique, stemming from the work of Michael Sandel, claims that meritocracy helps people forget that their socioeconomic status puts in a majority of the work in getting them certain jobs. On a larger scale, it conveniently makes the question of why a lawyer earns higher wages and generous benefits while the teacher might not, difficult to ask. The agreement is that higher skill equals a higher wage. The answer is given by the material realities of getting such a coveted career– it is clearly because every lawyer clawed their way up to the top and is simply reaping the benefits of their abilities. 

As with every new wave of technology comes the argument for the need of retraining for the workforce. If your current skills are not enough to keep up with the current labor market, you need to train in some way to keep up. For many, going back to college is not feasible, and even being out of a job for long enough to complete a program to learn skills still valued by the job market can make day-to-day living extremely difficult.

Yes, the bloated costs of college make it hard for people to achieve what they want, but the necessity of being at a certain “high” skill level to be given a living wage and health benefits needs to be reconsidered. Only about 38% of American adults have a college degree. People of all skill levels should have access to the same material benefits, no matter “how hard” someone thinks they worked to get their position. 

As AI continues to gain a foothold in workplaces in almost every industry and change the way different jobs are valued, it's important to re-evaluate the idea that any worker has truly earned their job and the benefits that come from it. 

Many of the fearful headlines around AI claim that emerging technologies are important to keep an eye on because they will affect white-collar jobs specifically. People feared that despite all their years in school or training, they were going to be pushed down into the “low-skill” category. Their abilities, validated by the job they held, were a blanket of security– that blue-collar workers are not supposed to have. They are the ones who are constantly looking over their shoulder, waiting for the next boom in automation to destabilize their livelihoods.  

No matter what the white-collar workers think is “fair,” these headlines reinforce the idea that they earned the right to feel safe. This isn’t supposed to happen to them. They climbed high to gain skills and achieve a good job status for themselves. To reduce the seductive power of their abilities is to reduce their deservedness of prosperity. Most of these workers do not actually have to worry about imminent, dramatic changes to their status due to AI. Still, this scare could act as a wake-up call to those who think ability should have anything to do with material wellness. 

White-collar workers should be just as afraid of potential wage loss for middle-skill workers as they are of the worrisome headlines about AI threatening their own jobs. That fear, stemming from the fact that everyone needs their training to be valued to be employed, could be channeled into denouncing meritocracy on an individual level. Instead of being anguished solely about the rat race of securing a stable job, workers need to be concerned that –as technology races alongside education– meritocracy both threatens to take away what they have and causes millions of people to already live in that reality. If we can get closer (as individuals and small communities) to acknowledge that what we achieve isn’t necessarily earned, then the country can get closer politically to preventing future generations from losing the race between themselves and technology.  


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