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Does Technology Boost Jobs Or Kill Them?

Certain careers may be doomed, but trust humanity’s endless desire to consume and we’ll all be fine.

Does Technology Boost Jobs Or Kill Them?
[Illustrations: kasezo via Shutterstock]

We’ve heard a lot recently about how technology is killing jobs. Whether it’s robots writing sports reports or replacing security guards, it seems machines are taking on all sorts of roles previously performed by humans.

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Will there be fewer jobs in the future?

Not according to Ian Stewart, Debapratim De, and Alex Cole, three economists at the professional services firm Deloitte. In a U.K.-focused paper, they argue that technology has a job-boosting effect over time, even if the kinds of careers available change as a result of new inventions.

Using historical job data, they analyze how technology has affected what people do. For example, in 1901, 200,000 people washed clothes for a living in Britain. Today, only 35,000 people do that, mostly because families have their own washing machines. But while such innovations have killed some jobs, there’s been growth in other activities, particularly in the “care, education and provision of services to others.”

“The dominant trend is of contracting employment in agriculture and manufacturing being more than offset by rapid growth in the caring, creative, technology, and business services sectors,” the authors write. For example, there were only 9,832 accountants in England and Wales in 1871. Now there are a total of 215,678 employed in that field.

Technology creates jobs three ways, the researchers say. The first is directly: people work in the tech sector themselves. The second is that technology increases job demand in knowledge-intensive fields like medicine, business and professional services, marketing, design, and education. And third, because technology reduces the costs of basic goods, there’s more disposable income left over for non-essential items. That’s allowed more people to spend money on grooming and going out, for instance, which is reflected in the growing number of people bartending and hairdressing.

People who say we’ve reached a step-change with technology–that robots aren’t complementary machines but substitution machines–won’t agree with the paper’s historical perspective. Martin Ford, author of the recent Rise of the Robots, says “this time is different.” By which he means that robots are going to play a fundamentally different role than washing machines have.

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Still, the paper is a helpful reminder of two things: One, that the human-technology relationship is two-way and dynamic. And two that, above all, people are resourceful: Once one thing goes away, they look for something else.

“The work of the future is likely to be varied and have a bigger share of social interaction and empathy, thought, creativity and skill,” the authors write. “We cannot forecast the jobs of the future, but we believe that jobs will continue to be created, enhanced and destroyed much as they have in the last 150 years.”

We hope they’re right.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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