Since the invention of inventions, folks have debated a very basic question: Do advances in technology create or kill jobs? Clearly, innovation disrupts jobs. Think of all the tasks done by machines that were once done by humans, such as highway toll collection. It creates quite a paradox. Perhaps there is no one lamenting the loss of a job standing in a toll booth on a dirty highway all day…except every toll collector who is now unemployed or earning less than their former government guaranteed salary.
Theoretically, those displaced workers move around in a magically dynamic economy and end up both creating and finding new jobs, even better, more creative jobs. Economic theory doesn’t always match reality, however. Also, retraining is no trivial task, particularly for older workers, so the even if the macro works out in the end, the micro can be very painful.
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The Pew Research Center recently published a fascinating report that surveyed a series of well-known thinkers about the future of employment, looking ahead to life in 2025, with an emphasis on the impact of robots and artificial intelligence. As you might expect, the report is generally positive. A small majority of the nearly 2,000 experts surveyed agreed with this statement: Technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025.
Vint Cerf, father of the Internet, had this to say, for example: “Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case. Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices.”
Cerf is probably right. He’s been right about a lot of things.
Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, was even more effusive.
“If ‘displace more jobs’ means ‘eliminate dull, repetitive, and unpleasant work,’ the answer would be yes. How unhappy are you that your dishwasher has replaced washing dishes by hand, your washing machine has displaced washing clothes by hand, or your vacuum cleaner has replaced hand cleaning?” he said. “My guess is this ‘job displacement’ has been very welcome, as will the ‘job displacement’ that will occur over the next 10 years. The work week has fallen from 70 hours a week to about 37 hours now, and I expect that it will continue to fall.”
And yet, there are quite a few reasons that non-robots should indeed worry, and feel restless. Let me time travel back to the present to make my first point.
The L.A. Times recently reported that in California, roughly all the jobs lost during the Great Recession have been replaced. That’s the good news. The bad news? Mid-wage jobs have been replaced by low-wage jobs. In fact, the number of mid-wage jobs — $15-$30 an hour — are still shrinking, even as the recovery continues. Current mid-wage earners aren’t moving up the ranks, limiting opportunities for those with entry-level type jobs to move up.
This is a story that’s duplicated around the country. Disposable, low-wage jobs are plentiful, but notoriously unstable.
Back to the future now. Here’s what some of the other futurists told Pew. I think you’ll agree it sounds familiar.
“There will be a labor market in the service sector for non-routine tasks that can be performed interchangeably by just about anyone-and these will not pay a living wage-and there will be some new opportunities created for complex non-routine work, but the gains at this top of the labor market will not be offset by losses in the middle and gains of terrible jobs at the bottom,” predicted Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “I’m not sure that jobs will disappear altogether, though that seems possible, but the jobs that are left will be lower paying and less secure than those that exist now. The middle is moving to the bottom.”
Young workers and college students know this implicitly, I believe. Plenty of them have jobs that are only a few steps away from automation — heck, many of them are being asked to design their own elimination. The question is, how do you pick a job or a career with a real future? Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition, poses that question like this:
“We hardly dwell on the fact that someone trying to pick a career path that is not likely to be automated will have a very hard time making that choice. X-ray technician? Outsourced already, and automation in progress,” he said. “The race between automation and human work is won by automation, and as long as we need fiat currency to pay the rent/mortgage, humans will fall out of the system in droves as this shift takes place