Technological Unemployment

In the 1960’s classic movie “The Graduate”, a young Dustin Hoffman playing Benjamin Braddock gets some sage advice from a family friend about the future.

In a word, “Plastics”.

Anyone taking that advice at the time of the movie would have done quite well, either from the burgeoning petrochemical industry or from investments.

But what would that word be today?

It could be “Robotics”.

But chances are the actual robots will have more success finding jobs than those building them. After all, Robotics is a very specialized field.

ASIMO Robot from Honda
ASIMO Robot from Honda

Imagine a robot of the future going for a job interview and answering the “Tell me about yourself” question.

I, Robot, am the best candidate for this job, because:
I know your company, your customers, your product-line benefits, your mission, and how to delight customers. I am flexible, open to change and can adapt in a fraction of a second. I am an excellent multitasker, exemplary in a crisis, and can take on extra work at a moment’s notice. I can recall the optimal way to handle any workplace situation in an instant. I am a team player who is built to cooperate for maximum productivity with minimal supervision. I am an excellent learner who remembers everything. I can repeat tasks flawlessly, with perfect organizational skills and attention to detail. I am highly motivated. I have a great attitude, always eager, enthusiastic, and highly productive. I will work evenings, weekends and all night with a smile. I am 100% dependable. You can count on me.

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Technological Unemployment

Over the last few decades, many people have felt the force of “technological unemployment”, but what exactly is it? Dictionary.com describes it as:

unemployment caused by technological changes or new methods of production in an industry or business.

Andrew McAfee, a researcher, writer, and teacher about technological progress and its effects and co-founder of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy says:

The obvious definition is one fewer job than there used to be, with the same amount of output. A tax preparer can get automated away by software like TurboTax, and just not find work anymore. An assembly line worker could be flat-out automated away by a robot on the assembly line.

McAfee says digital technology has brought about massive increases in productivity, citing the legal discovery process, where a single lawyer can now be as productive as 500 used to be. With numbers like those, firms are incentivized to employ a smaller legal team and some software.

“Routine cognitive workers” following instructions are at most risk. We don’t have as many payroll clerks, travel agents, or automotive assembly workers as there used to be, even as these industries experience growth.

The Pace of Technological Change

Luddites breaking a Jacquard loom c.1844, Penny magazine.
Luddites breaking a Jacquard loom c.1844, Penny magazine.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, people have feared that new technologies would permanently replace jobs. Labor disruptions were temporary as new industries sprang up to replace obsolete ones and offer different types of work.

But this time it’s different argues Martin Ford in his new book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.

What’s different is the pace of technological change.

It took a century for advances in agriculture to play out, and decades for factory automation. But information technology is doubling in power every two years according to Moore’s Law.

This means that today, automation is outpacing the labor market’s ability to adapt. The pace of technological change is on an exponential trajectory.

Artificial intelligence is already making “good jobs” obsolete: paralegals, journalists, office workers, and even computer programmers could soon be replaced by robots and smart software. As Ford puts it,

Robots aren’t just in factories threatening blue-collar workers. It is really now anyone who sits in front of a desk doing any kind of job that involves manipulating information—especially if it is more routine and formulaic.

The Singularity

Ray Kurzweil is an author, computer scientist, inventor, futurist, and director of engineering at Google. He believes that the exponential increase in technologies like computers, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence will lead to a technological singularity in the year 2045—a point where progress is so rapid it outstrips humans’ ability to comprehend it.

TIME magazine graphic depicting the Singularity.
TIME magazine graphic depicting the Singularity.

What can we do?

No one knows how the rapid pace of technological change governed by Moore’s Law and the Singularity will impact labor markets of the future.

But one thing we do know is that learning skills that are hard for robots to master is one way of giving ourselves more job security.

A study conducted by Oxford University in the UK identified three types of task that are difficult for robots to learn:

  • originality
  • social intelligence
  • interactions with unstructured environments

They believe that the more a job involves these tasks, the less likely it will be automated. 84% of London businesses say the skills that their employees will need to change over the next ten years are (i) digital know-how (ii) management (iii) creativity.

To win the race against robot automation, we’re better off improving our creativity and social intelligence skills.

Inc. Magazine called Michael E. Gerber “the World’s #1 Small Business Guru.” His advice is to become an entrepreneur. Visit Michael’s Amazon page.

We need … more and more true entrepreneurs, what I have come to call New Entrepreneurs, to be inspired to create, to be inspired to innovate, to be inspired to build a completely new world.

YODA2If you want to be your own boss and make all the big decisions, then entrepreneurship is for you. But if you’re motivated by leading initiatives within the confines of corporations, intrapreneurship is a better fit. Both roles will be valued in the economy going forward and neither can be automated. Both require you to constantly update your skill set.

Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future …

Learn a new skill today. And may the force be with you.

Creativity: Making a paradigm shift in your Creativity

Public Speaking & Communicating: Skip Theory, Master the Art

The Essential Guide to Entrepreneurship by Guy Kawasaki

The Complete Web Developer Course – Build 14 Websites

Suggested Reading


Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I may receive an affiliate commission. I only recommend products or services that I believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

David James

David James

A Brit living in the United States, I'm interested in how we can better use technology to learn and collaborate. My interests include history, creativity & innovation, British culture and travel, philosophy in business, and educational technology.

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