The Future of Work is History
Written by Bailey Piazza for Diplomatic Courier
When imagining the future of work, one’s mind might wander to a scene right out of a science fiction movie. Flying cars, autonomous robots, or computerized cities may even cross the mind. But with every prediction, we ought to use the past to understand and evaluate the present and even the not-so-distant future. Using the past to guide the future allows society to prepare for the anticipated impact of change, be it to individuals, or entire communities.
Today’s innovation in the field of automation and progress in developing artificial intelligence has incited an atmosphere of both excitement and dread as we ask, “What can’t a robot do these days?” We see machines execute a spectrum of tasks, from picking the best fruits to managing hotels and restaurants, and even predicting the genetic likelihood of an individual developing certain cancers. The promise of upcoming technology has people on the edge of their seats, with many waiting to see which job is next in line for partial or total automation. One study found that 47 percent of jobs in the United States alone are at risk of automation and up to 85 percent internationally. While this causes significant anxiety for those wondering how they will provide for themselves and their loved ones, many economists offer good news: the threat of automation is old news.
Citizens of the eighteenth and nineteenth century expressed similar fears in the era of the Industrial Revolution. Household businesses dedicated to producing necessary goods like homemade textiles quickly found their market dwindling with the implementations of water and steam powered machines. However, the opening of factories ushered in an employment boom for women. Following the exposure of harsh factory conditions, society saw safer technology and new laws protecting worker interests and health in the workplace. Harvard economics professor, Kenneth Rogoff, argued that technological change has routinely sparked the recurrent fear of mass unemployment. Alas, this has yet to happen. However, this rationale comes with a dooming caveat: the boon of jobs has time and time again been preceded by “a long period of painful adjustment.”
The Industrial Revolution felt that same painful readjustment period, including two devastating Communist revolutions, which claimed the lives of over 100 million people. The chaotic global economy felt no stabilization until the end of World War II, with the implementation of modern social welfare and the opening of new opportunities, like co-ed universities with forward-thinking degree programs, for people to retrain and acquire new technical and human-based skills that in turn would qualify them for previously unheard positions in a rapidly developing job market. The lesson learned from the years of hardship: social and economic progress do not always evolve hand in hand.
While one cannot assume with certainty that the past will repeat itself, society can prepare for the future by learning from the past. The continuing discussion on the future of work must also include preparation for a stage of social and economic modification that complements the upcoming norms. Policymakers, universities, businesses, and government entities must consider the severe repercussions if necessary safeguards and opportunities for development are not set at pace matching the automation race. The narrative of technological innovation is a wise tale full of timeless advice and tested theory. If its lessons are heeded in time, we can ensure that the future of work encompasses sustainable and steady economic advancement that coincides with the flourishing of social progress.