Workers, Machines and Constant Change

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Anyone who drives on the nation’s toll roads has used a job-eliminating device: electronic tollgates.

Unemployment due to new technologies – and workers’ resistance to them – are as old as the industrial revolution. In the early 1900s, glassblowers were replaced by mechanized bottle makers. Today, autoworkers are no longer necessary to bolt car parts to carriages – robots do it with speed and precision. Toll takers are the latest disappearing breed.

Workers who lose their jobs to progress face painful transitions, and pessimists throughout history have warned about technologies increasingly rendering human effort obsolete. Indeed, jobs can seem to vanish overnight after an entire industry or occupation adopts a laborsaving machine, presenting displaced individuals with difficult choices. They must either invest in a new skill or move into a low-skill, lower-paying job.

But in the long arc of history, technology is continually creating new jobs to replace the old ones.

“The cycle of job destruction and creation has produced a labor force where, over the long run, workers have generally found jobs – albeit jobs that largely did not exist 100 years ago,” concludes the Center for Retirement Research in the first of three reports on technology’s impact on older workers for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

The changing nature of work encourages new forms of growth by expanding the economic pie.  For example, about a third of U.S. workers used to be on the farm before being largely replaced by agricultural machinery like combines and threshers, the report said. But during and after World War II, new technologies adopted by industry supplied manufacturing and office jobs to the farmers who had migrated to the cities to work. Wages rose and the economy grew rapidly during this period of unprecedented abundance.

Another way that technology helps the economy is by making goods cheaper to produce and buy, freeing up demand for other products. For example, Americans spend 15 percent of their budgets on food – less than half of what they spent in 1900 before farms became fully mechanized. More money for cell phones.

Lower production costs, thanks to machines, can also increase the need for workers elsewhere. A classic example is machine-harvested cotton, which drove up demand for spinners to turn cotton into fabric in Massachusetts’ textile mills in the early 1800s.

In addition, new technologies have a direct but often-overlooked effect on job creation. Each new machine, computer or software program has been designed and made financially viable by workers, and workers will be the ones to operate, maintain, and ultimately improve them.

But the pessimists argue that the computer age will be different, because technology is advancing at breathtaking speed – the number of transistors on an Intel chip has increased exponentially since the 1970s.

So, is the computer age different? The next two automation blogs will provide some answers to this – and to the question of whether older workers are particularly susceptible to the latest form of technological progress.

To read the first brief, authored by Anek Belbase and Alice Zulkarnain, see “Is This Time Different? What History Says about Machines’ Impact on Jobs.”

The research reported herein was derived from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

1 comment
Susan Allen

I believe this is an important subject but people are resilient in adapting to changes in the work market. I also think you should include a little more history in the area of agriculture. The Dust Bowl for instance, if you are really trying to reach the retirement age population, they have been through a lot of agriculture and technological changes in the past 75 years. I believe that by including this, you could reach a wider audience and open up the conversation. Otherwise it looks like you are trying to convince the millennial that they will be okay.

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