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Robots: the Job Creators?

Topics: Current Events
Image Credit: David Blackwell/Flickr

Technology could lead to significant job loss in the U.S. over the course of the next few years. In fact, researchers have estimated that as much as 47 percent of current U.S. jobs could be automated during the next couple of decades. But, let’s not get carried away here. Technology has been an excellent job creator historically — and there’s no reason to believe that won’t happen again.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about how robots might actually lead to more jobs, not fewer, in the years to come.

  1. The Industrial Revolution created jobs, but it was also a time when machines replaced people.

The job market in the United States has been going through a kind of evolutionary process from the very beginning. In the earliest days, most Americans were farmers. But, new jobs, and new workers, came quickly during the Industrial Revolution, and everything started to change. Now, we can look back and see that this was a period of tremendous forward progress and positive growth. But, it was more challenging to have that kind of clarity and optimism at the time.

The Industrial Revolution, and the concurrent wave of immigration that rose to meet it, had everything to do with machines replacing people. (The Luddites knew that and had their concerns.) Suddenly work that used to take one skilled craftsman weeks to complete could be done much more quickly, efficiently, and uniformly. In the end, this created jobs — lots of jobs. But, it did cause a decline in cottage-industry labor and laborers. It shifted our culture and our economy dramatically. It changed things. Some jobs became less common, and others sprung up out of nowhere. In the end though, the Industrial Revolution and the machines that came along with it, created jobs. It’s important to keep this perspective in mind as we look at the situation today.

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  1. Since then, the trend has continued — technology changes the kinds of jobs available, but it improves the job market overall.

A Deloitte study examined the relationship between the rise of technology and jobs by analyzing census data from England and Wales all the way back to 1871. They concluded that technology is actually a “great job-creating machine” — not the opposite. The authors present that an increase in spending power leads to more demand, and therefore more jobs. For example, a surge in the number of hairdressers since electric hairdryers were introduced says more about the economy and the culture than anything else. Similarly, the number of bank tellers has doubled since the 1970s, which saw the introduction of automated teller machines.

The study’s authors found that certain kinds of jobs have been more vulnerable to technological advancements than others. The jobs that are constricted or eliminated are often dangerous and/or repetitive. But, different kinds of jobs spring up in their place — ones that demand more of a human touch.

“The dominant trend is of contracting employment in agriculture and manufacturing being more offset by rapid growth in the caring, creative, technology, and business services sectors,” the study’s authors told The Guardian. “Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labour than at any time in the last 150 years.”

  1. There is no reason to believe this will be any different in the future.

Technology continues to dramatically shift the way we live and work, but there is no reason that it has to lead to widespread job loss. Historically, technology has actually improved the economy and the job market, both indirectly and directly, and that should continue to be the case as we move forward. It will change things however. In 1900, 40 percent of U.S. workers were agriculturalists, and today it’s less than 2 percent. The kinds of jobs that are available will continue to be altered as we progress, but as a whole, we will advance as a result.

That doesn’t mean the process isn’t painful though. These changes are coming faster than ever because technology is advancing so quickly. So, workers’ growing pains are understandable and should be considered when government policies and plans are implemented to help aid the transition. Additionally, today’s workers would be wise to consider these shifts and adjust their educational plans and occupational goals accordingly.

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