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The Work of the Future

If machines and robots are poised to displace humans in the office, why do so many people have jobs?

If the machines are taking all the jobs, how come so many people are working? The unemployment rate is at 4.9 percent. There are 143.6 million Americans with payroll jobs, a record. The number of first-time unemployment claims (pdf) is down more than 10 percent from last year, and is bumping along at levels not seen since the 1970s. Oh, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are 5.5 million job openings in America, close to a record.

All at a time when rapid technological change and adoption are destroying jobs. It’s a strange dichotomy. Books like Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2015) and The Second Machine Age (W.W. Norton, 2014), by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, have made articulate, intuitive, and compelling cases about the coming disruption to employment. It’s not just about ATMs replacing bank tellers and transcription software replacing stenographers. No, it’s drones replacing delivery people, self-driving vehicles replacing truckers, and robo-advisors replacing stockbrokers. Up and down the income and skill ladder.

But it doesn’t seem to be happening — at least, not yet. Not only that, but in many of the areas that are poised for disintermediation, the demand for jobs carried out by actual humans seems to be rising. Algorithms can write and produce articles. But established and upstart news organizations are hiring hundreds of digital employees. San Francisco and Silicon Valley are hotbeds of work-destroying technological developments. Yet the unemployment rate in both areas is under 3.9 percent, and they’ve added a combined 116,000 jobs in the past 12 months.

What accounts for the disconnect? It could be that the robots are still meeting and scheming about how they will take all our jobs, and haven’t actually started. But it’s also likely that, while there is legitimate concern about a smart computer taking the job of a smart human, the prospect of many computers taking a very large number of our jobs is less likely.

Just because technology can do something doesn’t mean it will. There is a sense among evangelists that the logic and elegance of technology is predetermined and inevitable. And indeed, the insanely quick adoption curves of Apple products, or Box’s storage service, or messaging apps, bear witness to that. But for every one, there is an opposite example.

Inertia is an extremely powerful force. There are good financial, psychological, and emotional reasons that people and organizations don’t simply drop the old ways of doing things and adopt new ones. At my most recent doctor’s visit, I filled out the intake form in pencil. Banks continue to employ tellers because lots of customers like them, because there are lots of things ATMs can’t do, and because they can help sell other products and services.

History is littered with futuristic technologies that either fizzled out or haven’t developed into new standards as quickly as pundits projected: flying cars, routine space travel, waterbeds. The geniuses who cook up new technologies don’t always fully appreciate the barriers to widespread use. Take drones. Companies are already using them as adjuncts to employees — insurance adjustors deploying them to assess roof damage after storms, for example. But using drones to deliver pizzas or packages would require a wholesale rejiggering of the nation’s air traffic control system, significant changes to privacy laws, and the destruction of an awful lot of tree cover. Oftentimes, new technologies have to fit into existing ecosystems before they can start taking them over. And that takes time, work, and lots of money.

History is littered with futuristic technologies that didn’t quite develop into new standards: flying cars, routine space travel, waterbeds.

Finally, I believe people are overplaying the danger posed by technology because it’s simply human nature. As individuals, it is very easy for us to foresee the obvious and concrete downside to new development: Five years from now, a computer could indeed be writing this column. But it is difficult for us to imagine the still-inchoate upside of new technologies.

That’s how it has always been. A farm worker in the 1850s, seeing one of Cyrus McCormick’s harvesters plow through a field essentially by itself, could not have imagined that the soon-to-be-obliterated jobs on farms would be replaced by even more jobs in factories. No buggy maker in 1904 could have foreseen that the car, in addition to displacing his job, would create untold millions of jobs in the auto industry — not just in manufacturing, but in design, distribution, sales, advertising, supplies, and gasoline.

New technologies are powerful not simply because they create new products or companies. Rather, they pack such a punch because they create entirely new economic ecosystems and inspire further innovation. And all of that takes work — and jobs. 

Daniel Gross

Daniel Gross is editor-in-chief of strategy+business.

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