Mankind’s fear of being displaced by technology in a productive capacity is nothing new. However, fear of technological advancements in modern society is ultimately unfounded.
In early 19th-century England, a group of textile mill workers, known as the Luddites, destroyed a great number of innovative machines in protest of the machines’ utilization. Though the machines greatly increased the productivity and output of the mills, they had significantly reduced the need for human labor within the facilities, which induced severe frustration among the textile workers. Today, the term carries an inherently negative connotation and is used to describe individuals who resist or outright oppose technological progress.
In the present digital age where the capabilities of technology seem to expand on a daily basis, one may feel compelled to reflect on the Luddite perspective; not necessarily to adopt it, but to weigh whether it holds any merit in its base insinuation that the labor of humanity would ultimately be rendered obsolete by its own innovations.
Those who see a correlation between technological advancement and adverse effects on labor markets often cite how the broader stagnation of American wages began in near conjunction with the beginning of wide spread commercial utilization of computers in the 1980s. However, it is difficult to attribute the onset of the wage stagnation solely to technology, as its rapid advancement was far from the only significant economic development of the 1980s.
History books tells us that the decade also featured the beginning of the country’s massive trade deficits with the rest of the world, as well as the wide-spread implementation of supply-side economics—a highly controversial economic theory that is widely criticized for advocating tax policies that subsidize capital at the expense of labor.
There is no disputing that technology has had a significant impact on labor over the centuries, but it is difficult to characterize the impact as overall negative in nature.
To date, it’s apparent that every major technological advancement has greatly enhanced the overall productivity of our economy and has also created fertile soil for several employment opportunities to emerge for every one that was destroyed.
For example, the automobile rendered the horse and buggy obsolete while greatly expanding the manufacturing capacity of the country. The interstate highway system, while reducing demand for rails and locomotives, greatly expanded the productivity of the transportation industry as well as the demand for diesel trucks, creating work for millions.
The commercial emergence of the Internet in the 1990s opened up a seemingly new world of communication and commerce. It has made it exponentially easier for smaller businesses to extend their advertising reach, providing them with the ability to maximize sales, thus giving them the need and the means to expand and add employees.
The growth of electronic commerce giants such as Amazon and the online equivalents of major traditional retailers has created a major boom in transportation and warehousing industries that more than offsets the business that has been diverted from conventional department stores.
According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics feature from TED: The Economics Daily in 2015, it was revealed that private employment increased 3.4 percent from December 2007 to June 2015, even throughout the economic recession of 2009. Given this fact, the data simply do support the notion that technology is a net destroyer of jobs. Considering the progress of things such as 3D printing and nanotechnology, that day may be on the horizon, but we can combat it by both being flexible and continually willing to re-invent the workforce on both a national and global level.