The Future of Work: We Have Been Here Before

Nana B Agyei (CC BY 2.0)

Nana B Agyei (CC BY 2.0)

Paul Saffo via Pacific Standard:

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.

This is not the first time society has fretted over the impact of ever-smarter machines on jobs and work—and not the first time we have overreacted. In the Depression-beset 1930s, labor Jeremiahs warned that robots would decimate American factory jobs. Three decades later, mid-1960s prognosticators offered a hopeful silver lining to an otherwise apocalyptic assessment of automation’s dark cloud: the displacement of work and workers would usher in a new “leisure society.”

Reality stubbornly ignored 1930s and 1960s expectations. The robots of extravagant imagination never arrived. There was ample job turbulence but as Keynes forecast in 1930, machines created more jobs than they destroyed. Boosted by a World War, unemployment dropped from a high of 25 percent in 1933 to under two percent in 1944. And the hoped-for 1960s leisure society never arrived because the diffusion of information technologies created unprecedented demand for Drucker’s “knowledge workers,” and fueled the arrival of the service economy.

Now the specter of job-killing robots is back. A coincidence of factors from a jittery post-crash global economy to disruption and the relentless advance of Moore’s Law has a new generation of prognosticators pitching dark warnings and the prospect of radical change. Jobs will evaporate and work will cease to be what gives us income—and meaning. Material goods will become abundant to the point of costlessness, and nations will pay citizens a guaranteed minimum income.

Even in the face of today’s considerable uncertainty, it is a safe bet that the most extravagant claims are no more likely now than they were in 1965 or 1933. We are headed toward neither apocalypse nor nirvana. Uncertainty will abound, but change will be far less radical than predicted, and events will unfold slowly enough for society to adapt, albeit painfully at moments.

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