Will Automation Spell Doom for the Workforce?

Jimmy L. Smith, Jim Smith Quality

History reveals that modernization tends to create more jobs than it eliminates.

There is a lot of attention being paid to the growth of automation—specifically to robotics and artificial intelligence—and its potential impact on the economy and the workforce. There has been, and will continue to be, numerous intellectual studies published, so we will not endeavor to augment their premises. We will leave the research up to you and those more qualified to explore.

From my view, no one has a perfect crystal ball to predict the future, but one thing is for sure. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in. Technology and innovation have put us on the path to significant change more than at any time previously, and there’s no going back! Society will have to find ways to deal with what’s coming. Before exploring the inevitable, an overview of history might be helpful. After all, history can be a predictor of the future. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The First Industrial Revolution
Automation is nothing new. The first industrial revolution started in the 18th century in Britain, but in a few short years spread around the globe. The first wave of the industrial revolution shifted to large factories with mechanization, which led to mass production.

Certainly, that era brought about many changes—some good, and some not so good. It required radical adjustment by government, business and the workforce, but it didn’t happen overnight. With the advent of mechanization, it would take more than one generation to solve some of the issues created by this significant change.

The negative outcomes were brutal. Factory work was loaded with long hours, stress, injuries and a host of other issues, but for the most part, these shortcomings were addressed with time.

Most of what we use and enjoy in our daily lives today can be attributed to this era of manufacturing. It opened the door for greatly improved economies, which bettered society as a whole and resulted in better lives for the working class of industrialized countries.

Yet there were many concerns about employment and wages during this era. What happened to the workforce? Did workers become extinct? Did workers’ financial situation decline? Were living conditions adversely affected? Massive job losses didn’t happen as feared. Even though productivity dramatically improved, the number of jobs increased dramatically as well. Although some jobs and tasks were replaced by mechanization, far more jobs were created—many at higher wages! Because of higher wages, living conditions and education improved significantly.

The Fourth Wave
What can be expected from the current wave of change (often referred to as the “fourth wave” of industrial revolution), led by the expansion of artificial intelligence (AI)? Will the sky fall, or can we expect the same outcome as the first three waves? That story is still being written.

As the first wave of industrial revolution hit America, about half of the U.S. workforce was dedicated to agriculture. With the advent of tractors, combines and other technologies, a great percentage of those jobs went away!

However, as agricultural employment dropped off, jobs in other sectors grew exponentially. Displaced farmworkers had to relocate to take other employment and learn new skills. Different work at mostly higher wages created a new, expanding middle class! (Sadly, some workers were unable or unwilling to make the transition, but that’s another story.) The second wave of industrial revolution was highlighted by the use of electric power and new technologies like the telephone and light bulb; the third wave was the “digital revolution” that began in the 1980s. Both eras were characterized by new work and more jobs at higher wages.

Now that we’re moving quickly into the fourth wave of industrial revolution, what can be expected? Experts disagree on all the issues.

As before, it should be expected to have short-term labor displacement caused by some jobs going away. Different skills will be needed to fill new jobs, many of which are not even known at this time. (About a third of the jobs in the U.S. today didn’t exist three decades ago!)

If history is any barometer, wages will increase, improving the standard of living for the majority of workers and their families, as well as society.

Change Is Inevitable
One thing is for sure: progress isn’t going to stop. Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, is reported to have said, “There is nothing permanent, except change.” We’re going to have to find some way to come to grips with what is on the horizon.

Just like the previous industrial revolutions, it will take everyone working together to make the transition. Government and business must focus on providing the right skills and training for the current workforce to ensure the positive impact of robotics and AI on employment, job quality and wages for both current and future workers.

Workers must be willing to accept that another major change is looming. It’s inevitable: the genie is already out of the bottle. Maya Angelou, the renowned American poet, said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” If history tells us anything, this change won’t spell doom and gloom for the workforce, as some predict. The major shift in automation and AI will likely be the launchpad for bigger and better tomorrows. iBi

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