It’s 2018. Technology is advancing exponentially and, as time goes on, becoming more and more integral to our lives. Machines are increasingly doing more work for us, but job creation has simultaneously been rising. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonfarm payroll employment increased by 213,000 in June 2018, and job growth occurred across professional and business services, manufacturing, and health care.
How jobs are still being created during technology’s takeover was a topic recently discussed in a TEDx talk with economist David Autor, who breaks down this paradox with two very interesting points:
The O-Ring – What is the work we do?
Autor’s TEDx Talk references a story from 1986, concerning the space shuttle Challenger, which famously (and horrifically) exploded less than two minutes after takeoff. The cause of that crash, it was later determined, was a rubber O-ring in the booster rocket that failed. In this multibillion-dollar scientific enterprise, this relatively inexpensive O-ring was the difference between mission success and failure. With this comparison, Autor concluded, jobs that people do will always be more valuable than their cost.
That’s because we are the O-rings in most of the work we do. When we—the integral parts of any ‘mission’—fail, the products or services we’re providing come crashing down too. As our tools improve, technology only magnifies the leverage and importance of the human expertise, judgement and creativity needed to apply it. Automating tasks doesn’t diminish human value, because the tools and their operators are inextricably linked—and our values rise together.
Never Get Enough – How many jobs are there?
It is said that invention is the mother of necessity. As automation increases our capacity to do more in less time, we use that time to invent new things. Often ‘automated’ things. And though it may seem that cycle is an ever-narrowing one for job prospects, it’s really a shift in the types of jobs we’ll work.
The ‘bad news’ is not that we are running out of jobs, it’s that many of the jobs available are either no longer considered ‘good’ jobs or ones that not every citizen qualifies for. This paradigm is shrinking the size of the middle class because blue collar and white collar positions are both being automated.
Autor notes that America has an array of high-education, high-wage jobs—such as doctors, nurses, programmers and engineers—whose employment growth is continually on the rise. Growth is also consistently rising in many low-skill, low-education professions—like food service, cleaning, security and home-health work.
Meanwhile, employment is systematically shrinking in many middle-education, middle-wage, middle-class jobs—like blue-collar production and operative positions and white-collar clerical and sales positions—and many of these jobs use well-understood rules and procedures that can increasingly be codified in software and executed by computers.
This shift is at the core of the threat to make us a more stratified society, divided between highly paid, highly educated professionals doing interesting work and low-wage, manual laborers.
But worry not! Autor’s ultimately-optimistic message reminds that, as history repeats itself, we will successfully emerge from this economic transformation just as we have done many times before.
And though we may not know where all of our technological advances are steering us, it is still we—in fact—who are steering them.
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