After scratching the surface with my previous post, I feel that technology’s impact on the long-term job market is a sufficiently significant and provocative topic to merit a follow-up piece. Thank you to those who read and commented upon Hasta la vista, baby.
I have subsequently learned that the projection from Gartner that prompted the earlier post is by no means an isolated, outlying finding. There is plenty of supporting evidence in the form of dense statistical analyses from research organizations, central bank economists and academia. The two Oxford University economists who had projected a 47% jobs-at-risk to automation ratio in the US (which I referenced in my previous post) recently joined forces with Deloitte to forecast a 35% figure in the UK.
For those looking for a more accessible format, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s book “The Second Machine Age” provides a highly credible glimpse of our future. From this body of work, it would be reasonable to conclude that the course is pretty well set. Technology will displace large numbers of jobs, in an increasingly wide arc of sectors of the economy and job types — some previously considered invulnerable, and at an increasing pace. Discussion over.
Where the debate still rages is in the economic and social consequences of these changes. Put simply, will advancing technology stimulate demand for sufficient ‘quality’ new jobs (and will our businesses, policy makers, and educators be able to supply sufficient qualified people) to offset the roles that are being lost? Will society as a whole benefit from the abundance of riches these changes could bring or will it polarize destructively?
At its simplest, we have faith in prior human experience. We have been through periods of major technological change before and have always emerged with new industries, stronger economies, and greater prosperity.
Reassuringly, there is a strong ‘optimistic’ school of thought. It has many familiar and irrefutable aspects to it. Devising and developing the new technologies, integrating and adopting them as services, and training and supporting their ‘users’ will generate many new jobs. Gartner’s 500% increase in data jobs is most likely a very conservative estimate. New roles, as yet unknown, will emerge. At its simplest, we have faith in prior human experience. We have been through periods of major technological change before and have always emerged with new industries, stronger economies, and greater prosperity. On this theme, as a sports nut, I particularly enjoyed The Budding Economy on Cognizant’s excellent FutureofWork.com site.
However, as I suggested previously, there are also arguments why we should be more alarmed. Rather than recite them here, I would recommend you watch C.G.P. Grey’s YouTube video Humans Need Not Apply. Perhaps the most telling line, “Technology gets better, cheaper, and faster at a rate biology can’t match” sums up the pessimistic viewpoint rather well. Automation is cited as one causes of the polarization of jobs — “lovely and lousy” — over recent years and a resulting growth in income inequality. Extrapolation of these short-term trends is not reassuring. Again to quote the video, “There can’t be such a thing as a poem- and painting-based economy.”
For now (and probably the next decade) I’m hedging my bets — put me in the intuitively optimistic, but practically concerned category. I do not think that these technological advances will inevitably lead to mass un- or under-employment and societal dysfunction. The economic self-regulation principle will apply, at least to some degree. Thriving economies need growing demand as well as supply (ask the Euro-zone members). However, I don’t see that we will inevitably ride out these changes without significant societal changes either. The same human resourcefulness and collaboration that enables technological developments will be needed to ensure that we are all so much the richer.