One of the most idiotic claims I hear, usually from members of the labor movement, is that automation is taking American jobs. They get made when I use self-checkout kiosks at the grocery store because they think that mindless machine is eliminating a human worker permanently. Ironically they rant at me as they’re demanding the minimum wage be increased. If anything encourages a business owner to seek a way to automate labor it’s forcing them to pay a laborer more than they make for the company. Another irony is they often post their rants online using a machine that has done more to wipe out manual labor than anything else.
Here’s the thing, when automation obsoletes human labor the people who are displaced aren’t eliminated from the workforce forever. Us humans are adaptable. In fact we wouldn’t be the dominant species on this planet if we weren’t. When our set of skills is obsoleted by automation we can learn new skills. In fact the replacement of human labor by automation has lead to the increase in the number of skills needed and therefore the number of laborers needed. That’s right, technology has actually created more jobs than it has destroyed:
In the 1800s it was the Luddites smashing weaving machines. These days retail staff worry about automatic checkouts. Sooner or later taxi drivers will be fretting over self-driving cars.
The battle between man and machines goes back centuries. Are they taking our jobs? Or are they merely easing our workload?
A study by economists at the consultancy Deloitte seeks to shed new light on the relationship between jobs and the rise of technology by trawling through census data for England and Wales going back to 1871.
Their conclusion is unremittingly cheerful: rather than destroying jobs, technology has been a “great job-creating machine”. Findings by Deloitte such as a fourfold rise in bar staff since the 1950s or a surge in the number of hairdressers this century suggest to the authors that technology has increased spending power, therefore creating new demand and new jobs.
Their study, shortlisted for the Society of Business Economists’ Rybczynski prize, argues that the debate has been skewed towards the job-destroying effects of technological change, which are more easily observed than than its creative aspects.
Computers may have eliminated the need for most secretarial labor but it created the need for hardware developers, programmers, technical support specialists, network engineers, and a ton of other jobs that exist only because computers are now pervasive throughout our society.
Automation is a wonderful thing. It creates more wealth that can be invested in more ventures that employs more people. Librarians well-versed in the Dewey Decimal Classification system may not be in high demand anymore but Google, Microsoft, and DuckDuckGo have employed a lot of people to build, improve, and maintain their search engines. In addition to creating those jobs automation also lead to entirely new markets. Data mining, for example, wouldn’t exist if massive amounts of searchable data didn’t.
3D printing is an emerging technology that stands to replace a lot of human labor in manufacturing. But it also stands to open up markets for improving 3D printer technology, material engineering for 3D printers, engineering goods so they can be more easily manufactured with 3D printers, designing 3D models to print, etc.
Advances in technology creates new markets which creates new jobs which creates new wealth which leads to advances in technology. It’s a beautiful cycle of creation. The people who claim automation eliminates jobs are bloody idiots. Automation creates new jobs.