The debate over the impact of new technology on job loss is nothing new or revolutionary. Discussions over whether new technology over time destroys more jobs than it creates, is an argument that has raged since the turn of the 20th century. During the great industrial revolution, much lament predicted doom for workers in traditionally low skilled, manual jobs. As mechanized earth movers replaced men with shovels, massive increases in productivity were realized with the advent of better machine tools. Predictions of the catastrophic demise of the American laborer proved to be largely unfounded. Increased productivity and an emerging world economy joined forces to produce many more, though significantly different, jobs than were lost to the new technology.
As we struggle to recover from the recent recession, increased anxiety, even hysteria, about the adverse effects of technological change on employment is raging once again. It is still true that labor-saving technological advances will displace workers performing certain jobs, but over the long run it generates new products and services that result in higher incomes and increases the overall demand for labor.
This time around the U.S. Labor market is becoming increasingly polarized with the share of middle wage level workers, those performing routine tasks, are suffering disproportionately to those in the higher and lower wage categories. The loss of jobs that require routine, predefined tasks, has been accelerated because of the recession and a slowly recovering economy.
The mega decline in the cost of computing over the past several decades has created significant incentives for businesses to substitute inexpensive and more capable computers for expensive labor. The unprecedented gains in technology performance have reawakened fears that workers in jobs once thought to be beyond computerization, will be displaced by the new high-tech machinery. Today those machines are already learning to perform tasks that once were thought to be the sole purview of humans.
Henry E. Siu, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and an author of a recent study that indicates those most affected this time around are younger, less educated and male, says, “Over the very long run, technological progress is good for everybody, but over shorter time horizons, it’s not that everybody’s a winner. Certain demographic groups like the young and less educated in another world would be doing fine, but in today’s world are not.”
The remedy for the jobless caught in the middle is founded in advanced education and retraining for occupations in healthcare, education, creative endeavors, the skilled trades and in professions that combine technical skills-sets with interpersonal skills. Flexibility and adaptability are the rules for surviving this evolution.