Where Jobs Stay the Same Is Where Joblessness Is Abundant
Fears of AI seem to be everywhere. One of its favorite hang-outs is Amazon.com, where several books – such as Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots – predict the end of work. They follow a well-tread path. Twenty-two years ago, Jeremy Rifkin wrote The End of Work. Almost immediately, we entered one of the greatest periods of job creation in history. The end of work is something we never have to fear. We won't run out of it until we run out of things we want.
Jobs are just tasks we carry out to produce and obtain the things we desire. We will never run out of consumer desires, no matter how many robots or other technologies we create. When technologies take care of some of our needs, they just give us the opportunity to pursue others, an opportunity we grasp eagerly.
Much of the angst seems to be over the likely lifespan of jobs that currently exist. But the goal shouldn’t be to preserve the jobs we have today. It should be to perform the jobs that will actually be needed in the future. Too many people seem to want to somehow combine 1950s jobs with a 21st-century lifestyle. But the reason we enjoy the lifestyle we have today is because we perform today's jobs. To be more precise, we perform the jobs we do now to produce the goods and services that we want and need now, not in the past.
How we earn our money depends on how we spend it. As we progress, we will continue to shed some jobs and create others, tailoring what we do for a living to how we prefer to live and what technologies can do for us.
In the 1860s, almost half of all Americans worked on the farm. Mechanical harvesting, hybrid corn, automation of the egg production process, and other technologies to bolster agricultural productivity eliminated the jobs of a great many people. But they didn't eliminate the constantly expanding list of people’s wants beyond food, not by a long shot.
By freeing up labor, farm technologies gave us the opportunity to meet other needs. At the same time there were tens of millions of farmers across the United States, there were just tens of thousands of physicians. Today, there more than 10 times as many, hundreds of thousands of medical doctors. There couldn’t be that many physicians if more people were still tied up working the farms. When technologies eliminate some jobs, it is as though we are crossing some tasks off our to-do list. When we do that, we don’t sit around twiddling our thumbs. We do other things.
When technologies eliminate some tasks, it gives us the opportunity to broaden our horizons. In 1900, about 1 in every 20 Americans in the workforce was employed by a railroad. The invention of the automobile and the airplane freed up a lot of labor – and freed our world to pursue new wants and needs. Today, almost 1 in every 20 Americans is an engineer or scientist, according to the Congressional Research Service. If 5 percent of the workforce – about eight million people today – were still employed by the railroads, there might not be enough people available to produce all the technological advances engineering and science generate.
When technologies eliminate jobs, they generally spawn new ones. In recent times, we've seen new technologies visibly and rapidly disrupt labor markets. Because of the Internet, we no longer need as many travel agents, bookstore employees, and store clerks. Instead, we need apps developers, web designers and web masters. Because of video streaming and digital movie channels, we no longer need tens of thousands of video store clerks. So we have more people available to perform personal care services, provide telephone technical support, and work at customer fulfillment centers for internet-based companies.
When technologies eliminate jobs in one place, they often spawn them elsewhere. ATMs have diminished the need for bank tellers at some branches. But because fewer people are required to staff a branch, banks open more of them in less populous areas.
Since the dawn of modern capitalism, we have been constantly engaged in a process of replacing one technology with another. But we don’t look back in sorrow at the jobs we lost – such chimney sweeps, milk men and ice men. Instead, we take for granted the conveniences we enjoy. And we perform the jobs they make possible.