Is Technology Really Going to Destroy More Jobs Than Ever Before?

No Need To Panic

You’ve probably heard that a robot is going to take your job. It’s an oft-repeated refrain, heralded in article headlines and speeches from luminaries such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. Some experts predict that anywhere from 38 to 57 percent of jobs could be automated in the next few decades, depending on who you ask, and the jobs aren’t limited to any one industry. Automation threatens to eliminate or limit jobs such as waitstaff, truck drivers, factory workers, accountants, cashiers, and retail employees, according to a recent report from PBS.

But to other experts, these apocalyptic predictions are overblown. Even worse — they fear that the warnings themselves could slow the progress of innovation, leaving society worse off.

Two economists from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) decided to clear up the debate once and for all. In May, Robert Atkinson and John Wu published a report titled “False Alarmism: Technological Disruption and the U.S. Labor Market, 1850–2015.” By analyzing data about occupational trends from the United States Census over the past 165 years, the duo concluded that those dark predictions of future employment are based on faulty logic and incorrect analyses.

For their report, the researchers focused on identifying increases or decreases in occupations that could be attributed to technological innovations. For example, the significant increase in the number of automobile repair workers following the production of the Model T and the decrease in the number of household workers following the invention of the washing machine were both identified as examples of technology-caused change. The researchers do admit in the paper that this method of determining whether technology affected the growth or decline of an occupation was “clearly a judgement call and subject to errors.”

Based on this methodology, Atkinson and Wu reached three primary conclusions. One: that the total number of jobs has changed very little over the past 20 years. Two: Growth in existing industries has made up for jobs lost to automation (example: a factory replaced workers with machines on the production side, but invested the money it saved into new jobs in sales and marketing). Three: Between 2010 to 2015, the U.S. lost the fewest jobs to automation.Several experts were on board with the researchers’ report. Tech strategist Simon Wardley hailed the report as “a fascinating read“; economics and business journalist Robert J. Samuelson praised the report for reminding readers that, in the past, entire occupations have been wiped out, and society hasn’t drowned in unemployment.

History, others agree, is a pretty good reason to be skeptical that technology will lead to widespread job loss.

“The fact is that there are waves of historical change in technology; they come, they go, there is nothing inevitable about them,” Robert Friedel, professor of the history of technology and science at the University of Maryland, said in an interview with MeriTalk, a website geared towards government IT experts. “We have absolutely no reason, I would argue, to suggest that that pattern is somehow permanently broken.”

A Bad Attitude

There are real consequences to believing those ominous predictions, Atkinson and Wu note. In fact, these warnings of technological disruption could ultimately be as detrimental as a robot takeover itself.

In their report, the researchers assert that the public could become wary of technology if they hear individuals they respect say that robots are coming for their jobs. This could cause technological progress to grind to a halt. Humanity would accept stagnation over innovation.

This anti-tech attitude is far from new — from 1811 to 1813, Luddites destroyed machines in England to protest textile automation. In 1830, British agriculture workers attacked the threshing machines that were rendering them expendable.