What does it take to make a living? That’s something almost everyone has to concern themselves with at some point. Most people muddle along and are happy to get any job that helps pay the bills.

The tried and trusted way to get ahead is a college education. There is a direct link between the number of letters after your name and earning potential. It works well for people with inherent academic skills or whose families make academics a priority. Those kinds of people tend to take care of themselves.

Other people are tradespeople who spend time after high school earning qualifications. That enables them to work in construction or related sectors. Many self-employed people fall into this category.

Others are entrepreneurs. They thrive on independence and are natural risk-takers. They’re more than comfortable risking losing everything for the chance at success. Entrepreneurs create jobs for everyone else.

For many people, the answer is working for the government. The pay is OK, and the jobs are reasonably secure, but the pensions are great.

But what about the people who aren’t especially academic or entrepreneurial and don’t work for the government? They represent the vast majority of the population.

The answer for those people is to put their bodies on the line instead of relying on their qualifications. The easiest way to achieve a middle-class lifestyle used to be working for a mine, drilling company, steel mill, lumberyard, or factory.

Globalization removed millions of manufacturing jobs as soon as China joined the World Trade Organization. The demise of coal and steel has taken longer, but has been no less disruptive.

The kinds of jobs that replaced those in these sectors typically pay less. People work the same number of hours or more and have fewer protections. That’s the clearest reason for the hollowing-out of the middle class I can come up with. The middle class is shrinking as the country’s wealth gap continues to widen.

Driving is one of the few remaining jobs that allow less well-educated people to achieve middle-class lifestyles. It’s not possible to outsource driving overseas. Goods still need transportation to their end markets.

Companies like Uber and Lyft have disrupted the taxi sector. The number of drivers has probably increased over the last few years. It has helped absorb some of the people displaced from other sectors.

What happens when autonomous driving finally arrives? Waymo is now offering a driverless service in Phoenix. Tesla’s next self-driving software update will happen next week. These might be only steps on the way to fully autonomous vehicles, but the destination is clear. Why would anyone pay a driver when the vehicle can drive itself?

By some estimates, 3% of the entire U.S. workforce works as drivers in some form or another. That’s millions of people. Cities with major ports have the most people depending on driving jobs.

The economy is already in a state of flux because of the pandemic lockdowns. If self-driving technology arrives during an economic crisis, it will significantly hinder the economy’s ability to absorb unemployed workers as a recovery takes shape.

We’ve already seen direct stimulus payments to consumers. Negotiations are ongoing for more stimulus programs. The age of massive deficit spending began a few years ago. It accelerated during the pandemic. No one has come up with a solution for how to pay the debt back without inflating it away. Autonomous driving would only make the question harder to answer.

Creating a route to a reasonable living standard for more people requires thinking outside the box. It will also need long-range government-led programs.

We need better-educated people and a lot more cheaper housing. Most of all, we need tax policy that fosters new technologies that can absorb the underemployed millions who are getting left behind.

All the best,

Eoin Treacy