Technology: job creator or job destroyer?

Steve Evans

Monday 31 August 2015

A recent report revealed that technology has created far more jobs that it has eliminated, but will that trend continue?

Listen to the doomsayers and they’ll tell you that technology is destroying jobs. By automating processes industries can replace many humans with a single computer. It’ll be cheaper and removes the possibility of human error.

That’s certainly what some reports have said. Industry analysts Gartner have predicted that one in three jobs currently done by people will be replaced by machines. “Gartner predicts one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025,” Gartner research director Peter Sondergaard said. “New digital businesses require less labour; machines will make sense of data faster than humans can.”

And to some extent it is already happening. Plenty of blue collar jobs, such as those carried out in car assembly plants, have been taken over by machines. For some, like bank tellers, telephone receptionists and travel agents, the process of being replaced by computers began a while ago, and to many people will seem perfectly natural. There’s probably a huge number of people out there that have never gone to a travel agent to book their holiday; they do it all online.

Other jobs that are being handed over to machines are ones that you’d think would be difficult for computers to do. Driving cars, for example. Reporting is another example. But the LA Times uses an algorithm that automatically generates information on earthquakes and fills in the gaps in pre-written copy. It’s worth pointing out that this is very much a supplemental development; the algorithm is used to get a story up online as quickly as possible before a reporter adds more substance to the story.

But it’s really not all doom and gloom. In fact, a recent report revealed that technology has helped to create far more jobs than it has destroyed. The report, from consultancy firm Deloitte, was drawn from census data in the UK dating back to 1871. In part, it’s due to the fact that technology has helped lower the cost of essentials, leaving more money for leisure. This has in turn created demand for service jobs such as bar staff and hairdressers.

“The dominant trend is of contracting employment in agriculture and manufacturing is being more than offset by rapid growth in the caring, creative, technology and business services sectors,” the report says. “Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labour than at any time in the last 150 years.”

The report also argues that many of the jobs that have been replaced as a result of technological innovation are jobs society could happily get rid of anyway. One example of this is the clothes washing industry. Back in 1901 it employed 200,000 people (out of a total population of 35 million), but by 2011 that number had fallen to 35,000 while the population had risen to 56 million.

“A collision of technologies, indoor plumbing, electricity and the affordable automatic washing machine have all but put paid to large laundries and the drudgery of hand-washing,” the report says.

It is also clear that technology has helped boost jobs in what the report calls “knowledge-intensive sectors,” where “the accelerating pace of communication have revolutionised” certain sectors. One of those is accounting, where rising wages have driven demand for financial services. The report states that in 1871 there were just under 10,000 registered accountants in England and Wales, and there are now over 215,000.

So which way will the trend continue? Will technology continue to create jobs, or continue to destroy them? In true fence-sitting style, I think the answer is somewhere in between.

There’s no doubt that those jobs listed above such as assembly line workers, bank tellers, public transit and taxi drivers, and telemarketers will continue to be replaced by cheaper and more reliable computers. But more specialist roles, where human interaction is paramount – think social workers, or emergency response crews, for example – will never be fully replaced by computers.

There will certainly be no stopping the march of technology, and the resulting changes like cheaper goods will be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it will mean more disposable income for many people, spurring purchases of leisure items, which will create demand for jobs to service those requirements.

On the other hand, we will be faced with many people seeing their jobs replaced by technology. However, the recent improvements in IT education across Europe mean that many more people will have the skills required to get jobs in industries that utilise technology, instead of being replaced by it.

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