IPhones, iPads, Computer-Driven Trucks ... How to Invest in This Increasingly Automated Economy

When will the jobs return? That's been the question in this glacially slow recovery.

The answer? Many of jobs won't be coming back, and that's painful news for all of us.

Job creation ebbed for years before the 2007-2008 recession and is likely to fall far short of what it was in previous decades.

Low consumer demand is one reason. Companies have no reason to hire if people aren't buying their products, and recession-wracked Europe, our biggest consumer, isn't consuming as much.

Yet there's another reason for weak job creation that isn't talked about as much. Automation, aided by new technologies, is increasingly replacing labor, changing workplaces and altering the economy in fundamental ways. For evidence of this trend, just look around your house, your office (if you're fortunate enough to have one) and the nearest shopping center.

• IPhones, iPads, and other devices are changing the way we shop, communicate and get news and information, disrupting old labor-intensive industries, such as newspapers and the U.S. Postal Service, while creating new ones that generally employ far fewer people.

• Online banking, brokerage and mortgages are increasingly making it easier for consumers to never set foot in a brick-and-mortar bank.

• Movie-downloading services such as Netflix and Redbox have hastened the demise of video stores.

• Self-checkout aisles at stores and gas stations have eliminated thousands of retail jobs.

Truck drivers' jobs might soon be on the line too. Experiments with computer-driven vehicles have had vastly improved results in the past several years. In 2005, computer-driven cars could go only a few miles. Recently, Google-operated cars went thousands of miles without a mishap, and California Gov. Jerry Brown just signed a bill to allow them on the state's highways.

As technology evolves at an ever-increasing rate, new jobs are created but not fast enough to replace the jobs that are disappearing. This is creating hardship for millions of Americans.

"At some point in the future -- it might be many years or decades from now -- machines will be able to do the jobs of a large percentage of the 'average' people in our population, and these people will not be able to find new jobs," writes Martin Ford in his eye-opening book Lights in the Tunnel, which can be downloaded for free. This book details the challenges that we face and offers some possible solutions, including shorter work weeks, job sharing, and eliminating payroll taxes so employers have less incentive to replace workers.

David Autor, an economist at MIT, points out that the job market has been "hollowed out," with the jobs in the middle -- clerks, administrative positions, factory workers -- disappearing. At the same time, high-wage jobs have been created in computer programming and biotech. Low-wage, automation-resistant jobs in such industries as food service and health care are doing just fine.

While government officials can and should worry about how to create more good-paying jobs, investors who have long suffered from a sideways stock market can profit by seeking out companies on the leading edge of the automation phenomenon.

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