Are the Machines Actually *Not* Taking Our Jobs? | Vol. 2 / No. 43.2

Photo: Flickr User J D Hancock , CC BY 2.0
Photo: Flickr User J D Hancock , CC BY 2.0

Well, yes, actually, they are.


This recent piece in the Guardian, entitled “Technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, says 140 years of data,” is an examination of a rather positive analysis of the effects of technology on employment in England and Wales performed by economists from Deloitte LLP. But it’s not all good news, and the Guardian piece fails to recognize it.

The report does seem to show that more jobs have been created than lost as technology has progressed over time – but we knew this. There are far more people today than 140 years ago, and lo and behold, they are indeed mostly employed. This does not mean we ought to call off talks on the universal income, because the robots are still coming for our jobs.

Tucked at the end, after all the talk of increased jobs and shifting markets, is this tiny nugget: “the way in which change increasingly rewards high-level education and skills suggests that income inequality may yet widen” (p. 10).

As time has progressed, machines have decreased the unskilled labour force. For example, farming is largely done by machines now, with only a few workers to oversee the process. According to the study, the percentage of the English and Welsh labour force employed in agriculture has dropped from 6.6% to 0.2% (p.5). For another example, the clothes-washing industry, once employing nearly 200,000 people in a population of 32.5 million, now employs roughly 35,000 in a population nearly twice that size (also p.5).

And other industries have grown in their place — take nursing, which has gone from 28,000 in 1871 to roughly 750,000 in 2011 (p. 8). The growth of “care industries” leads the authors to conclude that “the work of the future is likely to be varied and have a bigger share of social interaction and empathy, thought, creativity and skill,” and therein lie the problems (p.10).

First, as the report states, “demand for specialist services such as medicine, business and professional services, marketing, design and education have increased as incomes have risen. These sectors help customers benefit from improvements in specialist knowledge and assist them in navigating complexity. The application of technology to these sectors has raised productivity and improved outcomes. This can be seen most spectacularly in medicine; but easy access to information and the accelerating pace of communication have revolutionised most knowledge-based industries“[emphases mine] (p. 7).

Nursing, like so many of the growth industries, is a specialist service requiring specialist knowledge. As we adopt new technologies, unskilled labour is replaced with skilled, knowledge-based work. That’s great if it’s free and easy to acquire that knowledge, but as we’ve seen over the past two decades, the cost of specialist education (especially in America, but also elsewhere) has skyrocketed. And that doesn’t take into account a very real possibility: that there may be a significant number of people in the population not capable of performing a highly knowledge-focused job.

The other problem with the shift is that it’s in the direction of things we don’t assign a high value to. Do you write for a living? Congratulations on your poverty. The median income for a registered nurse in the UK is £23,091 ($36,165 US), which sure, isn’t poverty, but if it’s a one-income household it’s stretching things rather thin. Educators are facing cuts, job shortages, and increasing adjunctification (just do a google search for “adjunct” and “living wage”). Of the four listed, “empathy, thought, creativity, and skill,” only the fourth seems to be something we feel inclined to pay for as a society, and mostly only when that skill is “making money.” Maybe systems of digital patronage like Patreon will help that sector develop, but I’m not holding my breath.

The authors of the study finish with a warning: “rapid advances in technology mean that education, training and the distribution of income are likely to be central to the political debate for many years to come” (p. 10). Meaning that if, as a society, we’re moving toward creators and caregivers over builders and bricklayers, maybe we’re going to need to make some changes.

So, all that said, maybe we should keep thinking about that universal income, before we all end up joining General Ludd’s army.

You can check out the study, shortlisted for the Rybczynski Prize, here.


Richard Ford Burley is a writer, library worker, and doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s studying remix culture and the processes that generate texts. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, and feminism (and robots coming for your jobs) here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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