I am back at the editorial helm of Bakers Journal after a one-year maternity leave, and it seems what is now was then and it all begs the question, what will be? Let me de-jumble. Health, wellness, natural, artisanal, gluten-free, whole-grain, coconuts…these buzzwords were top of mind when I went on leave and continue to be.
They were oft discussed when I took my first maternity leave in 2014. The essential sense of earthy back-to-basics is not a trend, it’s a cultural mindset that’s been sown and grown by a grand green thumb and its roots are here to stay. I suppose this leaves us well aware of where things stand, and perhaps less sure about where all of it might take us. Will sandwich bread still be a stalwart in 10 years, or will it be supplanted by a new kind of wrap/crepe hybrid? What will the sandwich of 2092 look like? Who cares, one might say. It has little to do with the sales of this day or next. But it does speak to who the innovator of tomorrow’s tomorrow will be. And there’s most certainly money in that.
Imagining the future world of baking is the only way to know if resistance is necessary (and it is never futile, despite what Star Trek fans may say). For all the current day’s nostalgia and romance of baking’s ancient arts, automation looms large. A research paper published by McKinsey Global Institute in January estimated that “Almost half the activities people paid almost $16 trillion in wages to do in the global economy have the potential to be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology, according to our analysis of more than 2,000 work activities across 800 occupations.” (Baking was not specifically studied).
Automation has already changed baking in many ways by allowing it to be industrialized on a large scale in an efficient and cost-effective manner. For small bakeries, the rising cost of staff could put plenty of pressure on owners to make use of all sorts of robotics as it becomes available. In the not-so-far-flung future, robots may be waiting tables and serving customers in cafes en masse. As new technology becomes adopted, it becomes affordable. Jobs feel lost, but more so they are displaced in a world of new skills. The future’s baker may need to understand as much about artificial intelligence as the peculiarities of yeast in the heat. The McKinsey report estimated it would take decades for automation’s bearing to fully play out in the workplace, but there was little question it was the direction we are headed.
A baker knows that the same recipe can taste different depending on who makes it. The differential is in the people. Traditional skills are worth preserving by every measure. A machine is only ever as good as its operator. The baker ought to embrace the technology that will keep his bottom line in the black, but resist like a superbug the loss of skills that can happen when humans become too removed from that which they create. Baking is an ancient art and let’s keep it that way. There is no magic or passion in a machine (as of yet), and I dare say those are the two ingredients worth protecting at all cost.
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