How will the job market evolve in our 21st century digital economy? What can we learn from history that might help us make such predictions? While there’s no guarantee that historical patterns will continue to apply going forward, they might well be our most important guides as we peer into an otherwise unpredictable future.
Fears that machines will put humans out of work are not new. Throughout the Industrial Revolution there were periodic panics about the impact of automation on jobs, going back to the so-called Luddites, - textile workers who in the 1810s smashed the new machines that were threatening their jobs.
Automation anxieties continued to resurface in the 20th century, right along with advances in technology. In a 1930 essay, English economist John Maynard Keynes wrote about the onset of “a new disease” which he named technological unemployment, that is, “unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”
Automation fears have understandbly accelerated in recent years, as our increasingly smart machines are now being applied to activities requiring intelligence and cognitive capabilities that not long ago were viewed as the exclusive domain of humans. “Previous technological innovation has always delivered more long-run employment, not less. But things can change,” said an Economist article from January, 2014. “Nowadays, the majority of economists confidently wave such worries away… Yet some now fear that a new era of automation enabled by ever more powerful and capable computers could work out differently.”
Automation angst, past and present, was the subject of three papers in the Summer issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. I’d like to focus my discussion on one of the papers, - The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different? - by economic professors Joel Mokyr, Chris Vickers, and Nicolas L. Ziebarth. Their paper looked at both the history and the future of jobs from multiple points of view.