The influence of technology on jobs

Hello wonderful readers! After sadly leaving the comparatively balmy hills of San Francisco, I am back reporting at Waterloo. For my first (and second) column piece of the new term, I want to talk about a topic that I think should be ubiquitous, but is unfortunately missing from the sphere of common knowledge, at least among students: the future of work. More specifically, how technological advancement will affect what jobs people do, what jobs computers do, and how, this time, things may be a little bit different.

Historically, technological advancement has been a good thing. We have had two industrial revolutions that have completely changed how people live. They increased productivity drastically, prodigiously raised the worldwide standard of living, and extended our lifespans. During each period of advancement, old jobs were wiped out and entire new classes of jobs created. Capital initially went primarily to the owners of the new technology, with only a small amount trickling down to the working class. 

The key to getting out of these periods of economic polarization has been wealth redistribution through a combination of social policy and education. Labour reform, including unions and workers’ rights movements, combined with government action helped to raise the standard of living for the unskilled worker. The prolific increase in the complexity and abundance of technology created a much higher demand for a skilled and educated workforce. At first it was sufficient for the majority of the population to be literate, then at least a secondary education was required, and as the western world entered its post-war golden age, post-secondary education became a requirement for skilled labour.

By the ‘70s, the West was the richest it had ever been, and the uncertainty and turmoil brought about by the second industrial revolution had long since subsided. The ‘70s is also the point whenproductivity stopped rising in tandem with wages.

Ask any economist and they will agree that gains in productivity are a vital indicator of economic prosperity. These gains should be coupled with a rise in wages — that is, workers in existing jobs should be paid more, and new jobs that are created should, at minimum, adhere to the higher wages. In the U.S., productivity has been growing at a much faster rate than wages for about 40 years, and in the U.K. and Germany that has been true for the past decade.

What does technology have to do with all of this? Economists assert that, among other potential causes, labour has been substituted for capital. In other words, instead of hiring people, businesses are buying machines. When these machines produce stuff, the profits go back to the company. The more machines and the less people working at the company, the more concentrated the returns from the machines and the wider the gap between productivity and wages becomes.

Sound not ideal? Well this is likely to continue at an accelerated pace. There is a lot of evidence that is backed by some pretty important economists, industry professionals, and computer scientists who argues that advances in artificial intelligence are going to eliminate a large percentage of jobs that currently exist. One estimate puts potential job extinction at about 47 percent of current occupations.

The most striking difference in the upcoming surge in productivity is that, in previous periods of rapid technological development, the jobs that were getting replaced were largely manual. The robots that are prepped to usurp the currently employed are smart — like, really smart. They will be able to handle complex work such as tech support, search and rescue, and other contextual, intricate, and dangerous tasks currently being done by people.

The upside to all of this is that we will see incredible gains in productivity. Automation combined with new manufacturing techniques such as 3-D printing and new technology created in burgeoning fields like nanotechnology will mean that denizens of the future will have unparalleled access to a plethora of cheaply produced, highly customizable, and incredibly advanced products. This increase in productivity will inevitably generate the wealth and prosperity it always has; the big question is how that wealth will be distributed.

Next week I’m going to dive into how we can avoid a world filled with glittering technology that masks a shabby and divided society. Don’t worry; things get better from this point on.