Technological unemployment: is it lasting?

You hear it all the time. AI and automation will take our jobs. People will be out of work, replaced by robotic counterparts and automation software. Technological innovation will cause unemployment.

The term for such an event is ‘technological unemployment.’ But even if technology does cause unemployment, is it short-term, or is it lasting?

What is technological unemployment?

Technological unemployment is self-defining: job loss directly caused by new technologies and innovations.

It’s a type of structural unemployment. So, rather than roots in supply or demand fluctuations, this joblessness is fuelled by a skills gap. (A mismatch between the skills of the worker and the jobs available from the employer.)

When new technology enters the workplace, it also replaces (and displaces) many responsibilities and roles. For example, computerised telephone dialling systems removed the need for switchboard operator skills. Automation software reduces the need for data administration.

Technology breakthroughs follow this systematic pattern of entering the workplace and either taking over or disrupting manual areas. Meaning, of course, that the current skills held by employees then become redundant or obsolete.

A recurring theme in history

Technological unemployment fears have a long history. Indeed, some claim that the first wave of technological alarmism dates back to the wheel and its impact on physical labour needs.

The early 19th century and its sweeping industrialisation is the next prominent example. Then came the 20th century and its hit on rural farm workers, thanks to improved agricultural technology.

Next were outbreaks of concern over spreading automation in the 1960s. Yet another wave of alarmism reared its head during the 1980-1900s; a reflection of the computer revolution.

With the continued innovation we see today – from driverless cars, to drones, to checkout-less shopping – it was only a matter of time before widespread technological unemployment concerns resurfaced.

Today’s threat of technological unemployment

Today, fears of technological unemployment surround automation software and artificial intelligence. These technologies are, after all, the ones taking on more and more of our daily tasks.

But the debate around technological unemployment is not over whether it happens — it’s about how long it lasts. The view that changes in technology can bring short-term disruption is widely accepted. However, some believe that it’s possible for technological unemployment to become long term.

New tools and innovations have always caused initial disruption. Thus far in history, though, human workers have routinely adapted and technological unemployment has been temporary.

But is today’s threat of tech-fuelled unemployment the one that shuts us out of work forever?

Arguments for the long term

Automation and AI are capable of more than ever before — and they’re only growing in scope, ability and use. Automation already takes on mundane tasks once left to bored humans. AI, meanwhile, will eventually mimic human ability, perhaps to the extent that humans are no longer needed in the workplace.

Warnings from respected minds echo this concern. For example, Oxford academics predicted that almost half of jobs could fall prey to computerisation. If this turns out to be the case, there simply wouldn’t be enough jobs to go around.

Plus, to combat technological unemployment, human workers must update their skills. Retraining and migrating take time to complete. So, even if technology doesn’t obliterate jobs, it may still cause long-lasting unemployment.

The Luddite fallacy and compensation effects

The idea that technology will bring lasting harm arguably ignores the bigger picture.

As such, some refer to this belief as the ‘Luddite fallacy’.  That is, any concerns stem from a fallacy. This argument against technological unemployment lasting into the long-term points to compensation effects.

Compensation effects are the causes behind disruptive technology bringing new employment opportunities. For example, creating, repairing and maintaining the new technology. Or, the opportunity to invest in different work.

In other words, technological unemployment cannot last, because new technology creates new work and new jobs.

Short term: the likely outcome

The disruption from automation and AI will see an unavoidable change in the skills we use in the workplace. The fact is, not everything is automatable. So, there is room to upskill or reskill around automation.

Instead of lasting technological unemployment, then, we will likely shift to emphasise soft skills. That is, skills that AI and automation cannot emulate.

It seems more likely than not that technological unemployment brought by automation and AI won’t last. Just as we adapted to the industrial revolution, we can adapt to the age of automation.

For instance, more jobs will (and already have) evolve around the introduction of automation. Think AI trainers and automation programmers for examples of new jobs thanks to automation.

In our hands

For lasting technological unemployment, we would have to actively let it last. We’d have to avoid upskilling or ignore the new jobs the technology creates.

If we adapt as we have done countless times before, technological unemployment will simply be a short-term disruption. It’s not lasting.

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