Eradicating the Boogeyman: Facing Change Boldly

Let’s all take a deep breath and relax. All the automation, artificial intelligence (AI), and augmented reality that’s emerging isn’t going to take jobs away. It’s going to create them. Throughout history, the inevitable trek of automation brings out the boogeyman, and whole nations fear for the industries that might be affected. It’s happening today, with robotics and AI claiming some of the headlines, along with a narrative of technology extinguishing human jobs and heartlessly mowing down unfortunate workers in targeted professions. 

But wait—let’s look at the actual outcomes of technology and work! In the late 16th century, during the time of Elizabeth I, English inventor William Lee developed a knitting machine—the stocking frame. By hand, workers averaged 100 stitches per minute; with the stocking frame, they averaged 1,000. The profession didn’t disappear—it became more productive. When cars replaced horses, jobs like blacksmiths and stable hands faded, but auto-related occupations, products, and services proliferated. 

And when ATMs were introduced in the 1970s, it seemed to sound a death knell for bank tellers, but because this change reduced the cost of operating a bank branch, more branches opened, and more bank employees were hired. They transitioned to selling financial products like credit cards and loans … and the non-ATM skills they brought—like problem- solving—increased in value. 

What’s different about the current environment is that past automation waves tended to displace lower-skilled work. Today’s smart machines are more likely to impact jobs we traditionally regard as “white-collar.” Still, the growth-after-automation trend rings true. Economist James Bessen, author of the book Learning by Doing: The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth, has conducted research that demonstrates professions grow faster, not more slowly, when computers take over some human tasks within an occupation. As technology improves, it reduces the amount of labor required to produce a certain number of goods or services. It also brings more opportunity to build a better workforce by retraining and reskilling to redirect the talent whose jobs will change through automation, AI, and augmented reality. And that’s how we’ll eradicate the boogeyman.

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