Since the emergence of the printing press, and potentially before, people have been consistently afraid that new technologies will destroy jobs and put them out of work. In fact, this is the origin of the term “luddite,” which today is used as a pejorative to describe anyone skeptical of new technology.
Historically, the Luddites were a group of English textile workers who were afraid of losing their jobs to textile machines; these people feared that industrialization and automation would destroy their lives (and society) forever.
With 200+ years of hindsight, we can laugh off the concerns of the original Luddites. But now that we’re facing much more sophisticated technologies – including some forms of automation designed to replace human workers entirely – should we be concerned about technology eliminating jobs? Or is technology actually going to be good for job creation?
How New Technology Creates Jobs
Most of us understand the argument that technology eliminates jobs. If a robot or automated machine can take over a human’s responsibilities, we no longer need to pay the human to do the work.
There are several effects to consider, including:
· Advanced responsibilities. In many cases, a role isn’t eliminated just because the machine is added to it; instead, the role evolves. The employee in this role might now be responsible for overseeing the operation of this machine, or they might be promoted to a higher position in the company where they can perform more complex, higher-level work.
· Technology jobs. We also need to consider the fact that new technologies demand skilled laborers to create, maintain, and advance those technologies. Some old school industries will inevitably lose jobs to technological development, but the tech industry is going to thrive.
· New job segments. On top of that, a changing society with greater automation and more leisure time can open up new job segments. For example, live streaming has become increasingly popular in recent years due to the number of people who desire this type of entertainment – and the amount of time they collectively have to consume it.
In the late 19th century and throughout much of the early 20th century, we relied on telephone switchboard operators for phone-based communication. In 1920, there were 178,000 operators, and by 1930, there were 235,000. But near the end of the 1930s, the industry was changed by a new technology that allowed phones to be connected to each other without the need for an operator.
There’s no question that this radical new telephone connecting technology was a good thing for human society. Telephone operation became much cheaper and more accessible, people were able to connect to each other more conveniently, and we paved the way for even better technologies since. But there’s no denying the fact that telephone operators don’t exist anymore; those 235,000 people all needed to find new jobs, either in the industry or someplace new.
The story isn’t limited to telephone operators, either. A quick look into any decade prior to the turn of the millennium will quickly show you dozens of different roles that simply don’t exist anymore. We don’t have milkmen, film projectionists, or video store clerks any longer – at least not in the numbers we used to know.
Because of this, there’s no question that many of today’s jobs won’t exist in 20 or 30 years. Our children and grandchildren will look back on this time with a sense of curiosity and nostalgia, recognizing that some of society’s most important jobs simply disappeared when the right technology came along.
The Sheer Power of AI
One other variable we need to consider is the sheer power of artificial intelligence (AI). Already, machine learning and AI have been able to solve complex problems and replace human workers for relatively sophisticated tasks. These technological forces are only going to become more powerful in the future, and they may develop on an exponential scale; once we start using AI to perfect AI, the upward trajectory is practically unlimited, at least according to some techno-optimists.
The Bottom Line
So does new technology really create jobs or does it merely eliminate them? This is a somewhat complicated question, since not all technologies are the same, but for the most part, we can count on both job creation and destruction. Some jobs will be rendered completely obsolete, but that doesn’t mean the people holding them are going to lose their jobs; instead, it just means they’ll have to change up their responsibilities or take their skills into a new industry.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that technological advancement is almost always good for humanity overall. We might lose some jobs to obsolescence in the process, but we’ll have even more job opportunities and economic growth in the future because of it.