The other day, I looked into a mirror and suddenly realized that my mother was looking back.
It sneaks up on you.
Most of us don’t notice the day-to-day changes in ourselves, or our environments, unless something triggers that recognition. That is especially true of the inexorable increase in automation–and it matters, because it is automation, far more than trade, that has eliminated so many American jobs. And that automation isn’t limited to spiffy robots on a factory floor; it is all around us.
When I first started to drive, gas station attendants pumped my gas and cleaned my windshield. These days, I pump my own gas, and the windshield gets cleaned when I go through the automated carwash. When I first practiced law, one legal secretary worked for two lawyers at most; partners in the larger firms usually had their own secretary (and still dictated directly to her as she sat, steno pad in hand). Today, even in the “silk stocking” firms, lawyers type their own letters, emails and documents on their computers. Wealthier families often had maids and cooks; ever-improving home appliances have reduced the jobs available for such domestic help.
Old movies will sometimes feature the banks of telephone operators who used to direct calls, handle switching equipment and place “person to person” long-distance calls. My IPhone doesn’t require those switchboard operators. Speaking of telephones, those ubiquitous “telephone trees” are a decidedly mixed blessing, but most businesses use them rather than the human employees who used to answer the phones.
Remember the rows of bank tellers with eyeshades, who kept account ledgers by hand? Computers have replaced them.
I don’t know how much snail-mail has been replaced by email, but my guess is that we aren’t running short of postal workers.
As we anticipate an era of self-driving cars, we might consider the trade-off to come: greater safety and cost-effectiveness for individuals against eventual loss of employment for literally millions of truck, delivery van, taxi and Uber drivers.
Technological innovations make our lives more satisfying, our work more productive and our daily tasks more efficient–but they also take their toll on the workforce, and not just numerically. It’s true that many of these modern conveniences create new jobs, but rarely in the numbers they replace, and usually requiring a different and more demanding set of skills.
We are going to need some creative policies to deal with the accelerating and inevitable changes in the job market. Retraining–while undoubtedly a critical component–will not address the plight of the high-school dropout who lacks the capacity to learn more demanding skills, or the older displaced worker who cannot cope with radical change.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know we will continue to see machines displace human employees, and I’m pretty sure that bribing Carrier to delay moving 700 or so workers to Mexico is neither an answer nor a policy.