Work ain’t what is used to be, and in the future it won’t be what it is now. Standardization, mechanization, electrification, and now robotification and computerization have driven constant upheaval. At each stage observers have expressed alarm that worker dislocation will create a social nightmare of unemployment and financial ruin. The changes have been disruptive for many workers as jobs disappeared and skills became obsolete, and many communities suffered long-term decline when their dominant industries withered. But over time the economy adjusted, and new and often better-paying jobs were created. Still, many individuals and communities never recovered. The workforce moved from farm to factory to office to telecommuter. Productivity has increased, wealth has grown, many of the most arduous and dangerous jobs have disappeared, and many new and rewarding careers have thrived. The lesson that many draw is that change can be hard on some individuals, and even lead to significant social and economic disruption, but that it is beneficial to the society in the long-run. We can expect to see some people hurt by current and anticipated changes, but we should have faith that society will adapt to technological progress and that in the end society as a whole will be better off.
But is it true that nothing is different this time? It seems certain that technological progress will make the economy more productive, but is it also likely to lift all workers and enhance economic equity? And what about the pace of change? The transformation of agriculture took place over many decades, giving social systems time to adapt. It has become a truism that the pace of technological advance is accelerating. Has our ability to transform social systems also become more efficient? If not, the next stage in the evolution of work might prove for the displaced workers, and we might find it more difficult to train people for the new jobs that could be created.
MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in The Second Machine Age that we are on the cusp of a powerful wave of technology-driven innovation and productivity growth that will create innumerable opportunities for exciting and well-paying work. George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen is less sanguine in his book Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. He foresees marvelous benefits for the top 10-15% of high achievers and dire consequences for everyone else. French economist Thomas Piketty looks at the interplay of technological change and larger economic trends in Capital in the 21st Century. He sees advances in technology and improvements in education as forces that promote social equity, but he worries that they are too weak to offset deeper changes in the structure of the economy that are leading to greater concentration of wealth and income at the top.
MIT labor economist David Autor thinks that most commentators overestimate what robots and computers can do and shortchange the tacit knowledge and integrated skills that humans possess. He acknowledges that machines are ideal for routine tasks, but he finds that most jobs entail non-routine tasks at which humans are superior. He expects workers to enhance their productivity and value by enlisting the help of machines of various types to perform the routine aspects of their jobs, giving them more time to complete the non-routine tasks. Harvard University economist and former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers looks at what is currently happening in the labor market as a sign that trouble is already here. He says that as a student he learned and accepted the sanguine view that technology would boost productivity and ultimately benefit workers. But he found it easier to accept that view as a student when the unemployment rate of U.S. males between the ages of 25 and 54 was 6%. It is now 16% and seems likely to persist at that level. Summers observes that this significantly changes the bargaining power of workers and employers and reduces the likelihood that this large group of workers will see salary growth. He also wonders why U.S. productivity growth has been relatively slow in spite of this alleged revolution in workplace technology.
The most recent optimistic views come from Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby’s article “Beyond Automation” in Harvard Business Review and a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, “A Labor Market That Works: Connecting Talent with Opportunity in the Digital Age.” Davenport and Kirby follow David Autor’s line of thinking in arguing that technology does not replace but enhances human labor, and they develop a variety of strategies by which people can position themselves to benefit from technological advances. Unfortunately, the examples they provide refer largely to the highly skilled and educated workers in the top 20% of the wage distribution. The McKinsey study makes a more practical point about how new technology will assist in social adaptation to change. Information technology will facilitate the process by which employers find workers with the right skills and workers learn what skills are needed in the new labor market. This could be important at all levels of employment.
And to generalize, generalization is ill-advised. The effects of change will differ among industries, across the nature and level of skill, and among demographic groups. You will not find a simple answer to what the future holds in the articles that follow. Instead, you will see snapshots that provide a perspective on specific aspects of the question. Margaret Hilton looks at the implications of changing employer needs for the type of basic education we should be providing. Can schools convey the broad mix of competencies that future workers will need? Mark Schneider explores the changing world of credentials that are becoming alternatives to a four-year college degree. Is a one-year certificate in a technical field a sound foundation for a successful career, or is a four-year degree becoming a prerequisite for middle class income? Donna Ginther examines the top rung of the education ladder: Ph.D.s in engineering and the physical, life, and social sciences. Their career paths have long been quite predictable, but are they now likely to experience the thrills of disruptive innovation?
Although the pessimists and optimists disagree on how well society will adjust to technology-driven changes in the workplace, they all agree that change is coming and adaptation will be needed. One key to successful adaptation will be attention to the specifics. What’s needed will differ between manufacturing and health services, between elementary school and high school, between middle-skill workers and highly educated professionals. And the results will be uneven, providing ample evidence for future optimists and pessimists to continue their debate.