What if technology keeps killing more jobs than it creates?

by Emrys Westacott

Images (1)The industrial revolution transformed the world entirely. Its most profound legacy, though, is not anything specific like electricity, motorized transport, or the computer, but the state of permanent technological revolution in which we now live, move, and have our being. There are some, it is true, like economist Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, who argue that we should not expect future innovations to match what we have experienced in the past. But like the fabled salt machine at the bottom of sea, the tech industries continue to churn out innovations–smart phones, driverless cars, Wikipedia, delivery drones, solar panels, camera-based surgery–that quickly and significantly affect the lives and expectations of us all.

For more than two centuries, this ongoing technological revolution has consistently done two things.

  • It has eliminated jobs by replacing humans with machines
  • It has created new jobs

Agriculture offers a paradigmatic example of the first trend. In 1830, 83% of the workforce in the US was employed in agriculture. By 2014, the percentage working in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting was down to 1.4%. Most of this reduction is due to the introduction of machines that in a few hours could plough, sow, gather, winnow, stack or store what used to take teams of workers days to accomplish.

From the start, the displacement of people by machines has caused problems. The original Luddites were English textile workers in the early nineteenth century who sought to protect their jobs by smashing the new weaving machines introduced by factory owners looking to save labour costs. Since then the same pattern of technology replacing or displacing workers has been repeated countless times. When the sort of work involved is boring, repetitive, and requires little skill or training, the loss is less likely to be lamented. But very often workers who identify with a specific trade, and pride themselves on skills acquired over many years, find themselves the victims of innovation. And this can happen very quickly.

Yet the continual invention of new labour-saving technology has not led to mass unemployment because the innovations, along with rising incomes, have created new needs and desires, and new jobs to meet them. Cars put blacksmiths out of business since the demand for horseshoes plummeted; but simultaneously, the demand for auto mechanics surged. This has been the pattern for two hundred years.

But a question has appeared on the horizon. What if the rate at which technology eliminates jobs persistently outpaces the rate at which it creates new jobs? If this happens, we will clearly have a serious, long-term socio-economic problem.

Futurology, in my opinion, is a mug's game. The famous horse manure crisis of the late nineteenth century should keep any budding futurologist humble. In 1898 there were 100,000 horses in New York producing 2.5 million tons of manure each day. Experts predicted that in a few years the city would be several feet deep in horse manure, and no-one could foresee a solution. But twenty years later the problem had gone away as cars took over from horses as the main form of transport in the city. As physicist Niels Bohr allegedly said, "prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."

So I would not confidently predict that a technology-induced employment crisis is at hand. At the same time, it is a fairly plausible scenario, one that is easy to imagine. Take just one innovation that has been in the news quite a lot recently: driverless vehicles. At present in the US there are over 1.5 million truck drivers, round 800,000 delivery service drivers, and about one million bus and cab drivers. So the advent of driverless vehicles threatens millions of jobs. In fact, it may not just be drivers whose jobs are threatened. If driverless vehicles are less likely to be in accidents, there will also be less need for auto repair workers. For that matter, there may even be a reduced need for EMT professionals to help road accident victims.

As this last example makes clear, many technological innovations offer clear benefits. That, after all, is usually why they are adopted. But it would be foolhardy for us to ignore their possible drawbacks, particular regarding the long-term impact on employment and forms of life closely linked to specific kinds of work.

A first step in preparing ourselves to deal with problems of this sort is to think hard about how we conceive of work and leisure. In many modernized societies, hard work is constantly praised as a cardinal virtue. It is touted as the key to wealth, success, achievement. People take pride in how busy they are. Iconic individuals, the type who are profiled in The New Yorker, are typically the kind of people who happily multitask on four hours of sleep a night.

There are good reasons underlying this view of work. One is that hard work very often is essential to achievement: people don't become good enough to perform at Carnegie Hall unless they practice, practice, practice. Another is that in a fiercely competitive culture, anyone unwilling to work hard is likely to sink rather than swim. Throw in a hefty dose of puritan heritage, and it's easy to see why the work ethic is alive and well.

Yet possibly, we might be better able to cope with a future in which there are fewer jobs available if we can find ways to embrace a better balance between work and leisure. For one obvious solution to the problem would be a redistribution of work, with more people employed, and everyone working fewer hours.

This will strike many as naïve and utopian. Perhaps it is. But one reason it can seem utopian is that a certain ideology has become a default way of thinking for many over the past few decades. This ideology, associated with Reagan, Thatcher, and libertarian conservatives, puts great faith in untrammeled market forces, believing that they will inevitably produce the best possible economic outcomes. There is no particular reason to believe that this is always true. Yet for those who embrace the market-always-knows-best position, there is, as Margaret Thatcher used to say, no alternative.

But there are always alternatives. For instance, if we think that our society is heading toward a technology-induced employment crisis, we could try to put in place policies that reward employers for spreading the work available over more employees, and that reduce the pressure on people to work so hard–e.g. by ensuring that they don't have to worry about unaffordable health care, housing, or education. We might also accord more value to managing a healthy balance between work and leisure, as opposed to achieving something special in one particular sphere. For a rational society does not sacrifice the well-being of individuals and communities on some ideological altar, whether it be the free market, the work ethic, or faith in technology itself. Rather, it tries to anticipate problems, and it is pragmatic rather than ideological in its attempt to solve them.