Looming concerns

Posted by

Seen for centuries as the specter of joblessness, automation actually fills more gaps than it creates

There has been much hand-wringing of late about the state of the labour market in today’s New Age of Automation.

Robots, it is said, are poised to steal all of our jobs and lead to mass unemployment.

No less an authority than our own prime minister frequently opines that we stand on the cusp of an age of mass-automation that will render humans entirely redundant.

So are we all doomed to perpetual unemployment and penury at the meticulously-crafted hands of robots? I doubt it.

Like grey-hairs moaning the state of kids today, fears of job-killing robot armies have been around for generations.

The most famous example are the Luddites, 19th-century textile labourers who protested technological advancement by destroying the looms that were displacing their work. Today, the term “Luddite” is a pejorative label placed on one who either refuses or just can’t understand how to navigate the contemporary digital landscape.

Automation has been happening for centuries. It is as old as technological progress itself, which has accelerated greatly in the past two centuries but has been evolving for millennia.

To bring it closer to the present day, as recently as the 1920s, farming was the single biggest employer in Canada. There were more than a million people toiling in the fields, one third of the entire labour force, and they made Canada a food-exporting powerhouse.

Fast-forward to the present day and agriculture represents less than two per cent of jobs in Canada, and that number is falling.

What has precipitated this epic collapse in farming jobs? Automation, in the form of machines that can complete the work of dozens of human employees in a fraction of the time.

That is why a few hundred thousand farm workers today can produce many times the amount of food that over a million yielded a century ago.

And yet, in the near-century since those heady days of farm work in Canada, the total employment rate — the share of working-age people that are actually working — has
only increased.

In the 1920s, most of the jobs that exist today had not even been contemplated. Computer programmers, commercial airline pilots, NASA engineers, installers of broadband and Uber drivers did not exist in the imaginations of the most creative futurists a century ago.

The same principle is true today: a hundred years from now our grandkids and great-grandkids will be paying the bills by completing tasks we cannot even imagine today.

Robots and other machines, having taken over all the boring and dangerous tasks traditionally done by human workers, will free us to conjure and create millions of jobs that today are imponderable.

Automation creates as many jobs as it destroys, or more; yes, robots now assemble more cars and washing machines than human hands.

But someone has to design, build, and maintain those robots. ATMs dispense cash, but bank employment is higher than ever. The people that work there no longer hand out banknotes but advice and mortgages, and other products and services ill-suited to the “skills” of machines.

Certainly, increased technological progress and automation creates disruption, and many workers are displaced in certain industries.

For those individuals the disruption can be painful, and there is a role for government to ease the process through unemployment benefits, retraining, and other policies to help those that are directly impacted by technology.

Many of the farm workers of the 1920s had to endure the economic hellscape of the 1930s before finding work again, an undeniably painful process.

And today, there are few attractive options for a 50-something who since his teens has worked in a factory with few other marketable skills. For those individuals, society, enriched as it is at the macro level by technological progress, should offer robust support.

Technological progress and, yes, automation, have brought to billions of people goods, services, and experiences not available to the richest Kings of Europe two centuries ago.

It should not be feared and resisted, but encouraged and embraced.

Comments are closed.

Canadian auto dealer