The Future of Work

The labour market and the economy have always had an uneasy relationship with technology. On the one hand, technology has allowed us to do things that had never before been possible, and to do the already possible in a much more efficient manner. Construction is a very good example. New techniques, materials, and technologies allowed us to progress from small huts to wood structures to castles and cathedrals and skyscrapers. We’ve gone from heating with wood fires to coal to natural gas and electricity. But at the same time, construction has required fewer and fewer people, and more and more specialization. Almost no technology has been an unequivocal blessing, and technology that disrupts the labour force is no exception.

Most current concerns are about automation in the industrial sector. This is, of course, nothing new. Since the dawn of the Industrial Era there has been resistance to the loss of work that has resulted from various advances in industrial techniques. The Luddites in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century opposed to weaving machinery to get around standard labour practices. They feared not the machinery itself, but the loss of skilled labour that might result from universal adoption of new technology. Two hundred years ago, workers were asking the same question they do now: will a machine take my job?

For many of us, the answer is probably.

The United States has lost five million factory jobs since the turn of the century. This is hardly a new phenomenon, though: manufacturing as a sector has been growing since the first factories were built, but employment in the manufacturing sector has been declining since the 1970s. To be blunt, the age of well-paying factory jobs is probably in its twilight years. The popular culprits—workers in emerging or emergent markets like China—are mostly innocent. While it’s true that many manufacturing jobs have been moved overseas, many of those jobs are now being performed by robots in other nations.

If it were just one sector, it would result in pretty widespread economic hardship, but it would probably be manageable. Retraining would be possible, maybe. And while manufacturing jobs have suffered, the manufacturing sector is making very impressive profits. Strong unions would be able to get some of that money to help employees make transitions or retire early.

However, computers and the internet are changing all of this. Increased processing power and speed, combined with increased storage has allowed us to automate so many things that, up until now, required a human touch: spot welding was just the beginning.

We’ve all heard about driverless cars, and how it’s going to be a revolution in transportation. This revolution, however, goes farther than just having smart taxis. The implications are staggering. Driverless cars could end private car ownership. That means a much smaller market for automakers, which means more reductions in workforce. Driverless cars also mean that taxi and Uber drivers could be out of work.

But driverless trucks will be much bigger than driverless cars (pun intended). There are currently over three million truck drivers in the US. But if you can replace those drivers with computers that can do the job safer, longer, and with no breaks, you can expect that number to drop dramatically. Add to this the disruption that could be caused by electric vehicles, and you have a large section of the economy that is about to undergo a catastrophic shift. Imagine no truck stops, because computers don’t need to rest, eat, or use the rest room. No waitstaff or cooks in kitchens on highways. Fewer jobs for highway patrol because there will be fewer divers speeding, driving dangerously, or needing assistance.

Automation is spreading to other sectors, too. We’ve already seen that retail checkout can be handled by a computer and very little human supervision. Robots handle most of the work in Amazon’s warehouse. Artificial Intelligence will be able to automate many other industries, as well: Barclays believes that a computer can handle banking and investments, too.

Even games are falling to AI. Recently, the best Go player in the world fell to a supercomputer.

This is not all doom and gloom, however. Technology has always opened new avenues for employment as it has closed others. Ask someone twenty-five years ago what a blogger was, and they wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. Social media has opened a new area of expertise. Web development is another example of tech creating new jobs while making old ones less viable (though that may be short-lived, too: computers know code pretty well).

There are also jobs that will be needed to develop and maintain new tech. In the Tim Burton film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie’s father loses his job in a toothpaste factory to a machine, and then is rehired to take care of the machine. Governments are investing in education to help people go where the jobs will be, rather than where they are. It’s an important distinction.

There are other options, too. Some governments (including Ontario) are looking to programs that will provide people with an income without a wage. If the economy continues to grow but the job market continues to shrink, something will have to be done.

A long time ago, the idea that robots would take our jobs was actually a pleasant one. It can be again. With some preparation and some imagination, we can embrace the disruptions that new technology will bring.

In the meantime, however, we still need to work.