In an essay, entitled "Making It in America," in the latest issue of The Atlantic, the author Adam Davidson relates a joke from cotton country about just how much a modern textile mill has been automated: The average mill has only two employees today, "a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to keep the man away from the machines."
Davidson's article is one of a number of pieces that have recently appeared making the point that the reason we have such stubbornly high unemployment and sagging middle-class incomes today is largely because of the big drop in demand because of the Great Recession, but it is also because of the quantum advances in both globalization and the information technology revolution, which are more rapidly than ever replacing labor with machines or foreign workers.
In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won't earn you what it used to. It can't when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra - their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.
Yes, new technology has been eating jobs forever, and always will. As they say, if horses could have voted, there never would have been cars. But there's been an acceleration. As Davidson notes, "In the 10 years ending in 2009, [U.S.] factories shed workers so fast that they erased almost all the gains of the previous 70 years; roughly one out of every three manufacturing jobs - about 6 million in total - disappeared."
David Fuller's view Because we are a clever species, the rate of technological innovation is increasing, often at an exponential rate. This will continue to replace workers, and not just in manufacturing. The trend started in developed countries but inevitably spreads throughout emerging economies as they also develop.
The march of technology is so pervasive that most adults can cite numerous personal examples of how it has transformed much of what we do, especially in the workplace. In my UK research business, commencing in 1970 I employed a team of up to ten skilled arts graduates who drew beautiful charts. Their production created a steady demand for art supplies, including fine pens, bespoke papers, cardboard backings, labels, liquid wax and even lighter fuel. If the process sounds Dickensian today, it was. The boards were bound into weekly books, creating a lucrative job for printers. The delivery of these chart books was good business for postal services. Today, we produce vastly more up-to-date graphics in Fullermoney's online Chart Library.
By eliminating numerous 'traditional' jobs in so many industries, technology obviously creates unemployment problems, not least in manufacturing. However, productivity increases also spawn new businesses, particularly in services sectors. Many of these will require more highly educated people as Thomas Friedman points out. They will also put a premium on social skills rather than muscle power. I would not be too pessimistic about long-term employment issues provided that our schools cater to the skills required.