The ongoing collision of robotics, artificial intelligence and automation into the world of jobs has seemed largely a case of Machines, 1 - People, 0. With technology continuing to take over so many jobs, including those of professionals, it's hard to see people regaining the upper hand.
Worry about the possibility of major joblessness received ammunition from a Bank of England analysis last week suggesting that 80 million jobs in the U.S. could be replaced by technology over the next 20 or 30 years. The jobs won't just be low-wage, low-skill ones, but would significantly hollow out the middle class.
And yet, a major debate still rages over how much harm technology might cause the job market.
A Pew Research Center poll of 1,896 experts in 2014 found that 48 percent expected robots and digital technology to displace "significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers -- with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable and breakdowns in the social order." But 52 percent didn't expect technology to displace more jobs than it created.
The difference owes to the weight each side assigns to the arguments for and against. Here are the major reasons why some think technology will displace many workers:
- The country has room for only so many STEM professionals. Sending everyone to programming or robot boot camp will just mean many more educated people than open positions and drastically lower salaries because of an oversupply of labor.
- Companies haven't been generous in sharing productivity gains since the 1970s. New automation technology would sharply ramp it up even more as fewer people would do the same amount of work.
- Too many jobs at too many levels would become obsolete at the same time. The natural mechanisms for taking up excess labor don't have the capacity for such change.
- Although technology creates new jobs, there's no guarantee that they would match the number of jobs lost. How many robot mechanics would a given company need? Probably not as many as the number of jobs that the robots replaced.
- Pointing to the past, like to the Industrial Revolution or to the advent of electricity, assembly lines or even digital computers, should give no comfort. The real expansion of jobs came from rapid real economic growth as more people were able to consume more. Conditions today are fundamentally different, and such expansion is unlikely.
Countering the doomsayers' arguments, the optimists offer different scenarios:
- All jobs will become more technical, so increased education can only help. For example, according to Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, the next decade will likely see about 3.5 million new manufacturing jobs. But because people don't have the necessary skills and training, 2 million will go unfilled.
- Companies won't have a choice but to share productivity gains because the potential for social collapse would be obvious. They're do this by moving people into more skilled and valuable positions.
- The transition in jobs is an opportunity, not a malady. The country has a chance to make advances in many parts of society by freeing people from soul-crushing jobs.
- Growth in productivity will result in more business, not less, ultimately creating a need for more workers.
- Every time technology has seen a major acceleration, the net result has been more than enough jobs for people in the long run. There's no reason to think the pattern will be different now.