The Future of (un) Employment in the Machine Age

Humans have speculated about the future of work for hundreds of years. In HG Wells’ The Time Machine, the hero travelled to a future in which automation had created a childlike leisure class, and a brutish working class who toiled in great industrial factories underground. Wells, who was writing in the late 1890s, was responding to the anxiety produced by the first Industrial Revolution. As mechanisation improved productivity, some occupations were disappearing, and new classes of factory and managerial workers were taking their place.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution appears to be creating similar apprehensions about the future of work. One of the many contributions to the debate concerned with how mechanisation will impact work is the 2014 short documentary Humans Need Not Apply. Upbeat in delivery but bleak in content the film explores the history of industrial change from mechanisation to automation, and its effect on human employment. It argues that as lower-skilled jobs were displaced by mechanisation in the 20th Century, so too will many common white collar and professional jobs in the 21st Century.

This loss of jobs to mechanisation and automation is called ‘technological unemployment,’ a phrase coined in 1930 by the great economist John Maynard Keynes.

This view is supported by economist Andrew McAfee. In his 2012 Ted Talk, Are Droids Taking Our Jobs? McAfee looks at the significant developments in human history from religion to empires. He concludes that the invention of steam power and machines to replace human muscle power was the first momentous revolution in human work. The second momentous revolution, he argues, is the invention of machines to replace human brain power – and this revolution is already underway.

Despite these fears, there is cause for optimism. In a follow up Ted Talk, McAfee presented What Will Future Jobs Look Like? He envisions a new ‘Machine Age’ that will usher in an improved economy of higher productivity and less drudgery. Others consider the age of automation as an exciting prospect, with opportunities for increased human creativity and freedom from toil. A recent article in Newsweek agreed that while technological unemployment has occurred in the 20th Century, this is an effect of every major technological advancement. Industrialisation, mechanisation and automation each resulted in technological unemployment. However, while this was painful, the shift from old technology to new ultimately created more jobs than it has destroyed over time and resulted in economic growth.

So what is the reality? The fact is that we are on the edge of McAfee’s ‘Machine Age’, as advances in robotics changes the nature of systematised and routine work. Work that can be done by mechanical muscles and computerised brains will be saving both people and companies time and money.

Like HG Wells, we don’t know exactly which new jobs will be created in the future. We do know that the skills that will prepare us for the Machine Age are those that will help us to ‘take advantage of unique human strengths’ (Maney, 2016) and collaborate with, rather than compete with, machines.

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