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Does technology destroy jobs? Data from 140 years says no

Sourjya Bhowmick | Updated on: 11 September 2015, 12:38 IST

Our love-hate relationship with technology is not new: it makes us anxious even as we enjoy its conveniences.

One of the biggest anxieties around tech? That it is slowly but surely taking away our jobs and making more of us redundant.

Each time an indie bookstore closes because people are now buying books online, that fear is reinforced. Each time a newspaper or magazine shuts down because people are getting their news on the internet, more doomsday scenarios are discussed.

This fear isn't limited to the news or content space alone - it exists across all sectors.

"The internet would become such an ingrained part of the environment that it would be like electricity - [it would get] less visible as it becomes more important in daily lives."

This was the opinion of around 2,000 experts at the Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center, on the future of the internet in 2025.

Data, though, shows some surprises

In the largest study of its kind ever conducted, Deloitte analysed 140 tears of census data in the UK and revealed that so far in human existence, technology has actually created more jobs than it has destroyed.

Tech has been a "great job creating machine," especially in knowledge-intensive sectors such as medicine and education, the study says. A sector that has lost out? Agriculture.

The indirect benefits owed to technology are, most interestingly, even higher. Technological advancement has lowered the prices of food, vehicles and electrical appliances, leading to increased disposable income to spend on recreation and leisure pursuits, thereby increasing more jobs.

While the data may show these facts, perception isn't quite as black and white.

The 2014 Pew Future of the Internet survey leans slightly towards the idea that technology will not make a significant negative impact on the labour market. But a large chunk of respondents - about 48% in all - do fear that technology will reduce jobs, increase income inequality and lead to social chaos.

Around 52% expect that more jobs will be created than destroyed in the next 10 years.

Most seem to feel that well-paying jobs may become a rarity. In addition, the participants in the survey were unanimous on the following counts:

  • The educational system is failing to prepare workers (knowledge gain will become more important)
  • Nature of 'work' may change in the next 10 years (free from laborious tasks)
  • Technology is definitely not destiny (more of a political choice).

Here's what some of the world's foremost experts in the fields of economics and technology think on the issue:

Technology has been a job creator, not destroyer

"Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys, and there is no reason to think otherwise. Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices." - Vint Cerf, recognised widely as one of the fathers of the internet.

"While robots may displace some manual jobs, the impact should not be different to previous waves of automation in factories and elsewhere. On the other hand, someone will have to code and build the new tools, which will also likely lead to a new wave of innovation and jobs." - Michael Kende, chief economist, Internet Society.

Advanced technology displaces old jobs and industries but creates new ones

"There will be a vast displacement of labour over the next decade. That is true. But, if we had gone back 15 years, who would have thought that 'search engine optimisation' would be a significant job category?" - John Markoff, senior science writer, New York Times.

"I would argue that jobs would shift into other sectors. Now more than ever, an army of talented coders is needed to help our technology advance. But we will still need folks to do packaging, assembly, sales and outreach." - Amy Webb, digital media futurist and founder & CEO of the Webbmedia Group.

There are certain jobs that only humans can do

"There will be many things that machines can't do, such as services that require thinking, creativity, synthesising, problem-solving, and innovating. An app can dial mom's numbers and send flowers, but an app can't emotionally connect with her." - Pamela Rutledge, director, Media Psychology Research Center.

Technology will not advance enough in the next decade to impact job market

"There is no doubt that technologies affect the types of jobs that need to be done. Some of these technologies will take a long time to deploy on a significant scale" - Jari Arkko, internet expert, Ericsson.

"The vast majority of the population will be untouched by these technologies for the foreseeable future. Risks of error remain major constraints to the application of these technologies." - Christopher Wilkinson, board member of the European Registry of Internet Domain Names (eurid.eu).

Social, legal and regulatory structures will minimise impact on employment

"A fundamental insight of economics is that an entrepreneur will only supply goods or services if there is a demand, and those who demand can pay. Therefore any country that wants a competitive economy will ensure that there is employment to drive demand" - Andrew Rens, doctoral candidate, Duke Law School.

The counter-argument Disbelievers, however, aren't buying the feel-good. They cite two factors as key to why technology will disrupt the job market in the next 10 years.

Displacement of workers is already happening and is about to get worse

"Robotics and Artificial Intelligence threaten to make even some kind of skilled work obsolete (e.g. legal clerks). This will displace people into service roles, and the income gap between skilled workers whose jobs cannot be automated and everyone else will widen." - Tom Standage, digital editor, The Economist.

The consequences of income inequality will be profound

"There will be a labour market in the service sector for non-routine tasks. These can be performed interchangeably by just about anyone, and these will not pay a living wage. Jobs may not disappear altogether, but jobs that will be left will be lower-paying and less secure." - Justin Reich, fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

First published: 11 September 2015, 1:30 IST
Sourjya Bhowmick @sourjyabhowmick

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