There’s a lot of concern about 21st century automation killing jobs both in the U.S. and beyond. And for the millions of workers who’ve been replaced by machines or robots going back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, this alarm seems warranted. Those higher up the food chain, however, argue that we must embrace this new reality, and characterize the pushback as “burying our heads in the sand.” Many business leaders claim that training our children for jobs that will no longer exist is not the answer. Neither is clinging to business models of the past or trying to return to the good-old days of well-paying and secure factory jobs.
In a recent article, Anurag Harsh, Bestselling Author and Senior Vice President at Ziff Davis, argues that the current moment demands “new skills, new mindsets, new competencies, and new institutions.” As he explains,
“We are now deep into a digital transformation, and a new way of thinking and working and living. The business models of our past are faltering. Legacy thinking is virtually unfit for this digital age. The reality is that the conditions within which humanity operates are not what they used to be. Yet, thousands of self-proclaimed experts continue their important work with obsolete methods and mindsets, outdated hardware and software.”
The most prominent example of this concern (or “hysteria,” as he characterizes it) is that surrounding automation and artificial intelligence. And it’s certainly true that almost every media outlet has carried warning of an apocalyptic future when technology will displace the employment landscape. Consequenlty, more and more Americans have come to fear that technology is creating job-stealing robots.
But he reminds us that there are many lessons to be learned from history regarding such resistance to technological change.
The industrial revolution, for instance, highlighted the need to ensure that people of all ages are properly educated to take advantage of the new emerging roles as traditional jobs disappear. Quoting the grandfather of American auto manufacturing, he includes one of Henry Ford’s more memorable quips: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Stuck in the Past
Harsh notes that nostalgic yearning for the past is one of the problems he saw with President Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” He clarifies that he is not interested in posting anything against the President, clarifying “I respect him and respect our presidency. This is not about politics. It’s about vision. It is impossible to go back in time or to recreate the past. Building a better and brighter future is the only way forward.”
Harsh compare jobs from a century ago to those of the present, arguing that most people would be stunned by the standard of living and the thankless work from yesteryear. Creative directors, content strategists, app developers and social media managers are a product of our times. The mantra to follow your passion and pursue what you love is also a product of our current epoch, not some fabled golden past.
Indeed, countless traditional roles have disappeared over the years, but that loss has been offset by the creation of new job titles for our digital age.
The Labor Force of Today
The Obama administration had published a report to Congress in February 2016 (link here) that was taken down when Trump moved into office. The Emery Reddy team covered its projections at that time, which included the following:
“There is an 83% chance that workers who earn $20 an hour or less could have their jobs replaced by robots in the next five years. Those in the $40 an hour pay range face a 31% chance of having their jobs taken over by the machines.” – Report from President Obama’s Whitehouse to Congress
Despite the alarming headlines, Harsh assures us that Americans are not running out of work. The real challenge is that many people consider the available jobs as mundane and uninteresting, on the one hand. On the other, they see themselves as lacking the skills to qualify.
He admits that the decline of middle-skill jobs could widen the wage and employment gap where lower paid workers serve the more affluent without opportunity for upward mobility. This dynamic would undoubtedly be a step backward. Yet once again, he reminds us, the lessons of past economic transformations suggest that such an outcome is far from inevitable.
For example, he explains that “today it is difficult to imagine that people once blamed the tractor for killing agricultural jobs. In fact, this new machine left an entire generation without work on farms. It also led to the inception of the high school movement, which then led to greater investment in education and ultimately created tremendous prosperity.”
In sum, we may be confronting the same cycle of problems today that Americans have faced over the past 200 years.
Whether they be the Luddites of the early 1800s or the analysts and journalists of 2017, the issues are essentially the same: anxiety over machines, robots, and technology replacing human jobs.
As Harsh maintains, there is no doubt that many traditional jobs Americans hold dear will progressively disappear. And the transition from an analog to a digital world will often be a turbulent one. But to thrive, he writes, “we will need to invest in ourselves rather than in things. We will need to secure for ourselves the relevant skills to succeed.”
In fact, he predicts that future generations will scoff at our alarmism for the same reason that we probably don’t want to do the kind of work our grandparents did. That is not to say that preserving a legacy is not a worthy impulse, but “it is not a sustainable policy for an entire society—especially one in flux like ours.”
Harsh concludes by proclaiming that as technology continues to infiltrate every aspect of human life, change will remain the only constant. “Sure, there are challenges and difficult decisions ahead of us. Take heart. Our destiny is in our hands, not in the hands of the machines we create. Don’t let any publication tell you otherwise.”
This statement raises the question: WHOSE hands hold this national destiny? Do workers really have the same power to shape our economic landscape as the 1% and their political representatives?
What do you think?