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3 minutes reading time (673 words)

Are Technology and Automation Really Destroying Jobs?

I remember as a child watching an episode of the Twilight Zone where a man replaces all of  the workers in a factory with machines. The episode treated this topic as morally corrupt. And my childlike mind agreed. I remember feeling badly for all the people who lost their jobs and thinking, philosophically, how one day machines and computers could replace all jobs and no one would have any work to do. A quick Google search turned up the title of this episode: The Brain Center at Whipple's.

Over the last year I have come across a host of articles, television news programs and conference speakers discussing the issues of technology and automation and how that impacts jobs. Here is a list:

    • Are Robots Hurting Job Growth? - a 60 minutes television program
    • Automation vs. Jobs - by Alan Brown, article in April, 2012 edition of Mechanical Engineering magazine

The answer to the question "Is Technology and Automation Really Destroying Jobs?" is an easy one today and has always been an easy one. Yes.

However, looking back historically it is equally easy to see how technology and automation has created new jobs which has more than offset the ones it has destroyed. Examples of this are numerous.

One is the venerable typewriter which was first manual then electric. The typewriter held an important role in business and personal lives for nearly a century. Those typewriter manufacturing jobs are gone. But they were replaced by word processor software development jobs and personal computer manufacturing jobs. Who would rather be using a typewriter today over a laptop word processor?

The original poster children for anti-technology sentiment were the Luddites. An article in the Missourian discussed the Luddites plight: THE GREAT RESET: Luddites raged against the machine and lost.

Time and time again over the last two centuries society has raged against jobs lost to technology and automation. Only to see new and usually better jobs created as a result.

Two centuries ago 90% of Americans worked on farms. One century ago 40% of Americans worked on farms. Today it is just 2%.

Think about it. Automation in the agricultural industry has destroyed 88% of the agricultural jobs in America over the last two centuries. And yet a large majority of Americans have jobs today.

The term often used to describe this process is "creative destruction". The job I work in today developing commercial engineering software did not even exist 30-40 years ago. My job was created out of the destruction of the slide rule and calculator. As well as the loss in importance of large, centralized computers.

The question raised in the references I gave earlier is whether something has changed fundamentally in the economy such that new jobs are not being created anymore. Or, more specifically, whether manual labor jobs are being created in sufficient quantity to keep the less educated gainfully employed.

Keep in mind this claim has been made repeatedly for two centuries and every time it has turned out to be a case of crying wolf.

I personally can't bring myself to believe this is generally true today. Is it true for short time periods? Sure. Until those displaced by technology can find new jobs in new industries. That displacement is often painful for those impacted. Is today in one of those short time periods? Or are we in a new world where manufacturing and physical labor jobs are going extinct?

As I indicated, I tend to come down on this being temporary. Innovation will create new industries and new jobs that today we cannot even imagine. Many of those jobs will require human beings. Until such time that those job functions can be automated. And then the cycle will repeat.

What do you think?

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Comments 1

Jean Verot on Thursday, 07 February 2013 07:26

I recently went to a conference on the actual crisis and it was said that 50% of the goods we are using today did not exist 20 years ago, and probably 50% of the goods will will be using 20 years from now still do not exist today.
The conclusion of this was "be inventive" and the best way to predict the future is to invent this future

I recently went to a conference on the actual crisis and it was said that 50% of the goods we are using today did not exist 20 years ago, and probably 50% of the goods will will be using 20 years from now still do not exist today. The conclusion of this was "be inventive" and the best way to predict the future is to invent this future
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Thursday, 22 October 2020

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