The early 21st century is marked by rapid technological development, particularly in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). These developments can create new jobs but also make numerous others less relevant or even obsolete. Such a possibility is a significant reason for alarm, as it threatens to render millions unemployed or unemployable with their current skills. At the same time, advances in communication allow businesses to expand in new ways that do not rely on physical presence and source workforce from distant locations. However, it is not the first time in history when technological changes displaced workers, and the society and economy had always adapted to these changes.
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Major technological breakthroughs had previously caused panic and unrest among the working population they threatened to displace. An early example of this is the Luddite movement of the 19th century (Pham et al. 126). At the time, new machinery was being introduced in the textile industry, prompting action from the workers who feared that their labor would be replaced by cheaper, less-skilled counterparts operating the new machines. This culminated in massive riots, attacks against factories, and destruction of property, which had to be suppressed by military intervention. Notably, the fear of being replaced was not the only motivating factor for the movement. Harsh working conditions were also a major factor, which is another significant concern in the issue.
Numerous later examples exist of technological innovations displacing workers or altering the workforce. Generally, although new developments sometimes rendered existing skills obsolete and cost some people their jobs, they also prompted an expansion in related industries or allowed entire new industries to be created. For instance, “as passenger cars displaced equestrian travel and the myriad occupations that supported it in the 1920s, the roadside motel and fast food industries rose up to serve the ‘motoring public’” (Autor 7). One can observe a similar shift into service professions as technology frees up labor time.
Another significant example is the agricultural sector, which was heavily affected by technological innovations that increased the efficiency of labor. In part due to these innovations, the share of the workforce employed in agriculture in the U.S. fell from 41% in 1900 to 2% in 2000 (Autor 5). A similar reduction in the percentage of agricultural workers over this period is evident in other countries (Roser). Despite this, the overall rate of employment has generally continued to rise (Autor 8). This demonstrates that even with changes as significant as this, massive crises do not necessarily occur.
Sometimes technological innovations change jobs rather than obsolete or displace them. An example provided by Autor is the introduction of automatic teller machines (ATMs) in the 1970s (6). Although automated one of the professional services offered by bank tellers, they allowed them to focus on other aspects of the job. Since then, a bank teller’s work has changed from primarily handling cash to what is described as “relationship banking,” communicating with customers and serving as salespersons of bank products and services (Autor 7). Furthermore, the reduction in costs of operating a branch allowed banks to open more of them, reassigning jobs that would otherwise be eliminated (Autor 6-7). Thus, an increase in efficiency in this area led to overall development.
Companies can offer specific safeguards against automation, rendering workers obsolete in their contracts. In a 1970 release, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that a majority of contracts in the manufacturing and printing industries included such provisions (19-20). These two industries were experiencing the most significant and rapid changes due to automation (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 19). Such provisions ranged from severance pay to re-training for workers affected by technological changes to guarantees of continued employment (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 20-21). This side of the issue highlights the importance of workers’ rights advocacy.
Currently, the rapid advances in technology and AI threaten to eliminate entire jobs from the market without creating comparable amounts of workplaces to compensate. Corporations can maintain facilities with robotic units and minimal human staffing. Famously, Amazon uses robots extensively to operate its fulfillment centers. According to Amazon, these robotic units are a significant benefit to the human employees working alongside them (About Amazon Staff). Such automation allows these facilities to achieve higher throughput and better fulfill customers’ demand (About Amazon Staff).
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This increased throughput necessitates more employees staffing the line (About Amazon Staff). Finally, the corporation claims that “since [robots’] introduction in 2012, Amazon has added more than 300,000 full-time jobs globally, including positions in IT and in servicing and maintaining robots” (About Amazon Staff). This positive outlook is corroborated by Autor’s statement that “workers are more likely to benefit directly from automation if they supply tasks that are complemented by automation” (7). Together, these suggest that increased automation creates both low-skill and high-skill jobs.
The automotive industry makes extensive use of automation in its production lines. Tesla is an automotive company that promotes innovation, both in its products (electric cars) and its manufacturing methods. To that end, the production line at the firm’s factory is heavily automated, and aspirations exist to eventually automate it entirely. At the same time, the company’s website claims to have created 51,000 jobs related to the factory in the state of California, including employees in the supply chain (Tesla).
In interviews and factory tours, Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, points out the impracticality of using robots for certain parts of the assembly process, necessitating human workers (“Tesla Factory Tour with Elon Musk!” 02:30-02:50). This example serves to strengthen the notion that modern robotic and automated machinery have to complement labor rather than replace it.
Changes brought on by automation do not merely involve creating and destroying jobs in the same or related industries. The nature of these jobs can play a major part in socioeconomic shifts. In what Autor refers to as “Employment Polarization,” technological innovations create “growth of high-education, high-wage jobs… and low-education, low-wage jobs… both at the expense of middle-wage, middle education jobs” (12).
He observes a similar shift in European countries as well (Autor 14). This can be seen as alarming as a significant stratum of the population loses employment prospects unless (or while) they re-train for these newly-required skills.
Furthermore, the treatment of workers at the companies mentioned above raises concerns not dissimilar to those that led to the Luddite movement. Work at one of Amazon’s fulfillment centers was described as “[feeling] like the human staff was reduced to livestock, existing only to service the machines” (Mirror). Similarly, the conditions at Tesla’s factory were reported to be exceedingly harsh and unsafe, and injuries can go underreported (Bloomberg Businessweek). These concerns suggest that involvement from labor unions or worker’s rights advocacy groups may be needed.
The increasing connectivity of the world is another technological matter changing the global economic landscape. Like telephones in the early 20th century and telegraphs before that, the ever-increasing access to the Internet allows companies to expand in ways previously considered impossible. It facilitates quick and efficient communication between different branches of the same firm, but its main innovative change is the ability to perform work remotely.
These advances also “[make] it increasingly feasible and cost-effective… to source, monitor, and coordinate complex production processes at disparate locations worldwide and altering competitive conditions for US manufacturers and workers” (Autor 22). This creates jobs overseas, though it does not necessarily diminish employment opportunities or national income in the U.S. while also contributing to the economies of the countries where these jobs are created.
The prospect of a “jobless future” seems close; however, different groups ascribe different meanings to the term. For some, the outlook is optimistic, as the wealth created by increased automation would mean that less work falls on humans, leaving more time for leisure and creative pursuits (Pham et al. 128). With a proposed Universal Basic Income system, it might not be necessary to work at all. However, since trials of the system have thus far been inconclusive, significant doubts exist as to whether it is sustainable (Pham et al. 128). Overall, this system requires significant restructuring in governmental structures, making it unlikely to be implemented in time to offset the potential dangers of a possible massive loss of jobs.
Others are not as optimistic, only suggesting that the employment and wage polarization will not continue. In their view, the middle-education jobs that automation threatens cannot be fully replaced, only complemented by technology (Autor 27). Therefore, these jobs will undergo a change similar to that of the bank teller, adapting and expanding to include more “non-routine tasks in which workers hold comparative advantage” (Autor 27). In these predictions, work focuses on the social aspects of the profession, while its technical side is performed in part or fully by robots or AI.
A pessimistic view of the automated future is based on concerns about the current economic system rather than changes brought upon by automation or AI themselves. These sources caution that if “robots are owned by a minority, the gains in productivity they permit… are not likely to be shared by the working majority” (Pham et al. 128). They suggest a heavily stratified society characterized by a virtually absent middle class and an underclass dedicated to serving an upper class and their robots.
Ultimately, most sources agree that significant and far-reaching changes in society and economics due to advances in automation and AI may be inevitable. They purport that changes in education are crucial to ensure that workers learn and continue to learn the skills that are required by the rapidly changing demands of the job market (Autor 27; Pham et al. 128). These changes should affect both the initial education and training programs aimed at existing workers.
The improvements in communication and connectivity contribute to an overall stronger global economy as developing countries can implement programs that focus on preparing a remote workforce. Although some fears exist of local workforces being displaced by cheaper overseas ones, similar limitations exist as with automation. As with the bank teller example, “ [the] same demands for interaction frequently privilege face-to-face interactions over remote performance, meaning that these same middle-skill occupations may have relatively low susceptibility to offshoring” (Autor 27). This prognosis suggests that local specialists will remain in demand but may have to learn new communication skills to adapt.
The current rapid technological progress is a strong disturbing force on the U.S. and global economy. It affects job availability and has the potential to change or destroy existing jobs or create new ones. However, the long-term effects of these changes are likely to be beneficial, provided alterations to the education and potentially economic systems can be made to compensate for the shifts in the job market. Furthermore, concerns about workers’ treatment and conditions in heavily automated facilities should be addressed.
About Amazon Staff. “What Robots Do (And don’t Do) at Amazon Fulfillment Centers.” About Amazon, no date. Web.
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Alan Selby. “Undercover at Amazon: Exhausted Humans are Inefficient so Robots are Taking Over.” Mirror. 2017. Web.
Autor, David. “Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 29, no. 3, 2015, pp. 3-30.
Pham, Quang-Cuong, et al. “The Impact of Robotics and Automation on Working Conditions and Employment.” IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine, vol. 25, no. 2, 2018, pp. 126-128.
Roser, Max. “Employment in Agriculture.” Our World in Data, 2020. Web.
“Tesla Factory Tour with Elon Musk!” YouTube, uploaded by Marques Brownlee. 2018. Web.
Tesla. “Tesla Factory.” Tesla, no date. Web.
United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Bulletin 1425-13. Major Collective Bargaining Agreements. Layoff, Recall, And Worksharing Procedures. U.S. Department of Labor. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972.