From the earliest forms of technology such as spears and knives which led to more efficient hunting, to the advent of manufacturing during the industrial revolution, followed by various inventions such as light bulbs, computers and even cars over the 20th century, technological progress has vastly contributed to the development of our economies and subsequently our material and non-material living standards. Fast forward to today, we continue to see improvements in existing technology, from the latest computers to new inventions previously not even dreamed of, like solar panels and online shopping. In short technology is the result of expanding innovative ideas that build on existing ideas. We see this in cars, which were modelled off of steam engine mechanics, which themselves were built from pre-existing technologies (from basic metals to even the wheel). Given the increasing speed at which technology is progressing, one of the major concerns people have is how technological progress will impact jobs in the future.
People most distinctly recognise the impact of technological progress on employment in the instance of job redundancy. For example, offshoring call centers to developing nations made possible by advances in telecommunication, or the dwindling number of bank tellers due to the growing presence of ATMs and the popularity of online banking. The manufacturing sector provides us with perhaps the most well known example, where machines, more accurate and faster automated, have replaced repetitive, manual jobs (the ‘low hanging fruit’). The evolution of boats to cargo ships also made it possible to offshore manufacturing over the past century. The twisted plot is that technological progress didn’t always lead to job redundancies even in the aforementioned examples. It initially created many more jobs, by enhancing worker productivity through the use of technology (from an electric drill, to a calculator). As technology progressed the tools became more powerful, and it then became more efficient to use more capital and less labour in these industries.
Figure 1 is an model to depict the general relationship technological progress has on jobs. It is an arbitrary model because the time frame from invention to the end of the technological progress axis is unknown, the speed at which the advancement creates jobs and eventually cuts back is also unknown and the number of jobs that are left in the end is also unknown as it changes with different inventions. The important features universal to all is that we start from zero, and then as some form of new technology is invented it would directly create jobs e.g in manufacturing and distribution on this invention. Technology then progresses over time through continued innovation or intertwining other forms of technology and the widespread use/application creates even more jobs, through the booming demand. At some stage it hits a peak where technological progress becomes advanced enough to become automated and possibly making decisions on its own through the advent of computers, thus reduces the need for labour. Think of things like automated manufacturing machines, self driving cars, algorithmic investment trading systems etc.
A simple case study would be the invention of aeroplanes, we start with inventions of simple gliders and unsuccessful attempts throughout history, and then the Wright brothers came along with their innovative design and the use of an existing technology: the engine to power the glider. As technology progressed and aeroplanes became viable to use, more jobs associated with it were created from manufacturing planes to pilots and engineers. Also note the catalyst behind the technological progress of aeroplanes was its use in wars. Eventually the aeroplane could be developed for civilian transportation use and along came support staff like corporate employees, management, flight attendants, airport staff and ground control and also indirect jobs aeroplanes created such as tour guides, hotels etc. At this stage we have a booming worldwide airline industry thanks to the rising demand from widespread use, and thus created many jobs associated with aeroplanes and the many airline companies around the world that now exist. With the advancement of aeroplanes through the application of computerized technology, it gave pilots tools to perform their jobs better such as auto-pilot where part of the pilot’s job is now automated. The question from here is will technological progress become so advanced that we will have unmanned civilian aeroplanes similar to spy drones being used in the military? The answer depends on if we can trust our lives on a machine controlling the plane, which is what the auto-pilot disengage is conveniently for these days. As for the other staff, we begin to see a decline in jobs through advanced tools such as robotic machinery in manufacturing aeroplanes and self check in systems at the airport.
The future of jobs is a difficult call to make because most of the low hanging fruit jobs have already been computerised, outsourced or automated and there is an element of unknown as to how far we can push the boundaries of technology. However despite technology advancing at a rapid rate there is a huge wall to climb in terms of getting to the big ground breaking stage (think of the movie ‘i-robot’ where there are robots everywhere with artificial intelligence capabilities mirroring humans). While computers are good at performing predictable tasks, there is the limitation in programming them to react to unpredicted events and have human like features such as inherent creativity and comfortable human interaction. Even before this occurs, most existing industries will exhibit a gradual decline in jobs, because workers will see the introduction of better tools improving their productivity that will in turn produce better quality services.
I would argue that there are many jobs that will be difficult to render obsolete from technological progress, because it involves innate human characteristics and human interaction rather than physical labour and pre-determined decision-making choices. Think of teachers, doctors, lawyers, designers – and the list can go on. Although unsustainable there is a case for optimism for job creation in the future as figure 1 demonstrates that new inventions and infant industries will advance over time which is followed by becoming widespread from booming demand and thus leading to the creation of jobs. In such a diverse world of goods and services, planned obsolescence can also play a major role in building sustainable jobs in the future (see the three part series written by Clement Wong found here). Since technology is evolutionary as it builds on from pre-existing knowledge, we begin to enter an era of new inventions such as Google glasses and other things we couldn’t possibly imagine right now. So the impact on jobs overall from technological progress in reality may not be so grim, the real concern right now is the possibility of redundancies in certain industries, which can have real implications for individual living standards.