Today’s concerns that technology may begin to replace people’s jobs are nothing new. In 1856, Karl Marx suggested “all our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and stultifying human life into a material force.” His comments could have been uttered today, as older generations worry about technology rendering many modern jobs and employment sectors obsolete.
What is “jobsolescence?”
This fear of technology is known as jobsolescence, and it can be traced back to the 19th century Luddite movement. Luddites sabotaged weaving machinery across England to protect time-honoured craft skills, fearing mechanisation would leave them jobless and irrelevant. Nearly two centuries later, some people fear machines will soon be able to drive lorries, perform surgical procedures or manage stock market trading better than they can. Digital technology and cutting-edge robotics have already automated millions of manufacturing and assembly jobs, while even service roles are threatened by chatbots and virtual assistants.
However, the Industrial Revolution’s thunderous mechanised machines didn’t lead to mass unemployment and civil unrest. Neither did the 1980s’ microprocessor boom, and nor will today’s cloud-hosted digital services. In reality, the jobs market will evolve away from manual work towards a more service-oriented future, just as the coal and steel industries were replaced by IT and communications companies employing greater numbers of people in far better conditions. Unemployment in the UK is currently very low, despite being 35 years into a digital revolution kick-started by a nation of hardware entrepreneurs and software developers.
So if there’s nothing to worry about, why is #jobsolescence a Twitter hashtag, and why does a Google search for the word reveal articles titled “Will machines destroy our jobs?” In essence, humans have an enduring fear of technological progress weakening their status and value to society. Taxi drivers worry an autonomous cab might navigate London better than they can, just as insurance underwriters fear being replaced by an algorithm that instantly determines who was responsible for a self-driving taxi crashing into a newly-delivered skip.
A pivot to better employment
A recent PwC report claiming robots may take up to 30 per cent of UK jobs by 2030 didn’t help concerns about jobsolescence. However, the report did acknowledge unemployment rates shouldn’t be significantly affected, as new jobs evolve from growing markets. Today’s digital marketing specialists and programmers are proof that AI has the potential to create vacancies, as well as fill them. And while admitting no industry is entirely immune from the effects of automation, the PwC report pointed out many industries like education and nursing should be relatively unaffected by technological progress.
For people employed in jobs that could be performed better (or more cheaply) by a machine, jobsolescence remains a clear and present danger. Yet the OECD estimate that less than one in ten jobs in first world nations is at high risk of automation. By placing greater emphasis on STEM-focused higher education and graduate training, the inevitable growth in cloud computing and digital services should ensure there’s no need for a second Luddite uprising.