More robots and (un)employment

There are a couple of points to be made when discussing how robots replace humans in the workforce. Increased inequality being one: the social consequences evidently power a populist uprising of people who do not feel secure in this era.

The other one is that for example in healthcare, technological progress allows us to heal or keep alive people that until recently would have died. They have their own set of typical needs that must be met with ever more labor, be it automated or human.

Financial services, of which the ATM is but a tiny part, have exploded with the coming of computer networks in the 1950s. Until the network, banks largely were local ledgers. Today they are global, with an explosion of services as a result, something that really is ongoing since the 17th century. Still if you look at the Netherlands which has an advanced banking sector, employment has decreased significantly over the years, 12% over the period 2009 to 2013 and 6% between 2013 and 2017. Even now that other sectors see a recovery, financial services still are down. Plus, new jobs typically require better educated young people rather than those who lost their jobs.

Still there is a golden nugget in this article: technological improvements alter our material circumstances to great degrees and do lead to new demands and new jobs to meet them. Typically such new jobs cannot directly be met by software routines so there is a grace period that can last very long times where technology seeks to catch up.

And yet the central point remains unassailed: computers still are on track to take over an increasingly great number of menial and less menial tasks leaving fewer and fewer humans with the capabilities to compete. Do not gloss over this because the truck drivers who are about to lose their jobs aren’t easily retrained and few will be happy with the uncertainty.

And let’s put this in perspective as well: farm labor accounted for almost all jobs in the middle ages. Technological improvements (plough, rotations, steam engine, improved crops) all dramatically reduced the labor farms needed. But whenever such a large technological advancement displaced people from the farm, the social consequences often were revolutionary. Many transformative events in history can be related to technological change on the farm and the resulting loss of employment for a great many. In Europe, the mercantilist, colonialist and imperialist era all found their laborers in unemployed farm hands. Many revolutions and wars equally were possible only because of the increased productivity at the farm.