When a new piece of technology is introduced, it's touted as the miracle solution to make work and life smarter, easier, and faster. Nearly every person carries around a small super computer in their pocket, the Internet keeps faraway family or coworkers connected, and mountains of data and information can be stored for time immemorial. Technological innovations claim to aid people in life and employees at work, but is the constant march of digital development actually destroying middle-class jobs?
The end of employees and the rise or robots is an apocalyptic prediction that has been forecast before, but never come to pass. However, the rapid advancement of tech could eliminate middle-income jobs that sustain many households, leaving workers without a digital skill set out of luck. Until about the year 2000, labor productivity and private employment grew together in the U.S. However, at the turn of the century, a gap emerged between productivity and employment: productivity continued to increase, while private employment decreased (see chart). Because of new technology, the economy and GDP were growing, but not coupled with job creation (Tech Republic, 8/19/14).
Since that time, new technologies created high-paying jobs – but only for a few and only for those with the right skill set. In the past, most middle-income households were sustained by factory or manufacturing jobs. In 1970, more than one quarter of U.S. employees worked in manufacturing (Bloomberg, 4/25/2014); those jobs accounted for only 8.8% of U.S. employment in 2013 (Economic Policy Institute, 1/22/15). The decline of U.S. manufacturing has several contributing factors: outsourcing and a surge of Chinese imports both contributed to the continual drop. However, manufacturing employment is falling globally in nearly every country, including China, (Bloomberg, 4/25/2014), due mainly to technology and the elimination of the need for industrial workers.
It is not just factory jobs being claimed by automation. About 47% of all present jobs in the U.S. are predicted to be computerized or automated within the next two decades (Oxford University, 7/17/13). Some service and white-collar positions are also expected to succumb to technology; accountants, retail salespeople, technical writers, and telemarketers, all have a high probability of being replaced by robots within the next twenty years (see chart, Business Insider, 7/23/14).
As middle-class jobs decline because of automation, others jobs do replace them; however, these are typically highly-skilled tech jobs or low-wage service jobs, leading to a polarized workforce. Those working in high-skilled jobs will benefit from high wages, while those working in low-skilled jobs will encounter the continuing trend of finding their earnings depressed. Additionally, technology allows companies to substitute labor for capital, which boosts productivity, but does nothing for wages, and concentrates wealth among a small group and resulting in ever-increasing inequality (University of Oxford, 2/2015).
But are the dire predictions are a bit too apocalyptic? Is the technology boom all part of typical economic cycles that destroy some categories of jobs but open up a whole world of new employment? A few decades should determine whether technology replaces workers with robots.
Readers, do you think technology is creating or destroying jobs? Comment and let us know!