“Why Are There Still So Many Jobs?” The Case for the Persistence of ‘Middle-Skill’ Employment

Thanks to Alainco for providing a link to this Subreddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/Technostism/ ) which focuses on something called “technostism”, which looks at technology itself as creating a new economic system, distinct from socialism, capitalism, etc.

There are a number of interesting articles on that forum, and one that caught my attention is titled: “Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation” written by David H. Autor and published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

It’s a long article which challenges the assumption that increased and more sophisticated automation will inevitably lead to fewer and fewer jobs. Autor accepts that automation will continue to increase, and that more and more tasks will be carried out by machines, but that there will be a continued need for humans to do tasks that they are uniquely suited for.

From the article:

“Whether the technology is tractors, assembly lines, or spreadsheets, the first-order goal is to substitute mechanical power for human musculature, machine-consistency for human handiwork, and digital calculation for slow and error-prone “wetware.”

“Given that these technologies demonstrably succeed in their labor saving objective and, moreover, that we invent many more labor-saving technologies all the time, should we not be somewhat surprised that technological change hasn’t already wiped out employment for the vast majority of workers? Why doesn’t automation necessarily reduce aggregate employment, even as it demonstrably reduces labor requirements per unit of output produced?

“These questions underline an economic reality that is as fundamental as it is overlooked: tasks that cannot be substituted by automation are generally complemented by it. Most work processes draw upon a multifaceted set of inputs: labor and capital; brains and brawn; creativity and rote repetition; technical mastery and intuitive judgment; perspiration and inspiration; adherence to rules and judicious application of discretion”

For an example, Autor looks at the impact on ATM machines on bank-teller jobs. In the United States ATMs were introduced in the 1970s and the number of them quadrupled between 1995 and 2010 — from 100,000 to 400,000. However there was an increase in the number of bank tellers employed grew from 50,000 in 1980 to 55,000 in 2010. There were fewer tellers per bank branch, but more branches overall, and the tellers were doing less of the laborious money counting, and more “relationship banking”, building customer relations, and acting as counselors and salespersons for a variety of bank services.

Another example he provides is the Google driver-less car. It can operate well only in the environments it is programmed by human engineers to drive in, and if something unexpected shows up, or it finds itself in an unfamiliar place, it requires a human to take over the controls: “Thus, while the Google car appears outwardly to be adaptive and flexible, it is somewhat akin to a train running on invisible tracks.”

Autor’s overall claim is that automation will continue to allow machines to do more routine labor-intensive work, there will be a continued need for humans to occupy what he refers to as “middle-skill” jobs, which require a broad-based education and which “will combine routine technical tasks with the set of nonroutine tasks in which workers hold comparative advantage: interpersonal interaction, flexibility, adaptability, and problem solving.”

As technological advances increase, and automation becomes more sophisticated, there will be a continued need for judicious application of these technologies. Some expect that the time will come where it will be machines, not humans who will make the key decisions on how technology is to be implemented — where artificial intelligence eventually wins out over human intelligence, and we will be at the mercy of the machines we have made. I’m not so sure about that. Maybe a large part of the work that will be done in the future will focus on trying make sure our machines, robots, computer programs, etc. are used for productive, safe and beneficial purposes.