As robots begin to do more and more of what humans did, cries are heard again from luddites that “machines are taking our jobs”—another “lump of labour” fallacy that just never seems to die.
The latest outburst comes as McDonalds workers lose jobs to robots; blowback it seems from unions making McDonalds a particular target in their campaign for a much-higher minimum wage, but the job replacement leading to more ludditery.
Guest poster Chelsea German looks at what the luddites don’t know about machines and jobs and the Great Job-Creating Machine …
As the Guardian recently reported, technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, and the new jobs it has created have been of higher quality. Technology eliminated many difficult, tedious, and dangerous jobs, but this has been more than offset by a rise in the caring professions and in creative and knowledge-intensive jobs, resulting in a net increase in jobs. The sectors to lose the most jobs have been agriculture and manufacturing, which are both difficult and dangerous, while work opportunities in medicine, education, welfare, and professional services have become more abundant. (For example, there are more teachers per student, improving student-teacher ratios, and there are also more physicians per person than in the past).
In 1980, almost a quarter of the world’s employment was still in agriculture. Now, only around 15% of the world’s workers are engaged in agricultural labour. Yet we are feeding more people, undernourishment is at an all-time low, and food is becoming less expensive.
Technological advances liberated humanity from toiling in fields by mechanizing many processes and boosting productivity, allowing more food to be produced per hectare of land, and freeing hundreds of millions of people to pursue less gruelling work.
The elimination of so many unsafe jobs in manufacturing and agriculture means fewer worker deaths. According to data from the International Labour Organization, from 2003 to 2013, the number of work fatalities in the world decreased by 61% (i.e., over 20,500 fewer deaths). This occurred even as the world population grew by over 700 million over the same time period.
If the most dangerous thing you have to face at work is the threat of a paper cut, you quite possibly have technological innovation to thank for that.
Even if in the future robots steal some jobs, advancing technology will likely make several higher-quality jobs available for every job lost. As the Guardian article cited earlier says, technology has proven to be a “great job-creating machine,” eliminating toilsome work but bringing into existence more—and better—opportunities than it takes away.
But note that behind every machine, there lurks human ingenuity. As Matt Ridley wrote in his book The Rational Optimist:
It is my proposition that the human race has become a collective problem-solving machine and it solves problems by changing its ways. It does so through innovation driven often by the market.
Learn more about what market-driven technological innovation has done to improve the state of humanity at HumanProgress.org.
Chelsea German is the managing editor of HumanProgress.org, and a researcher at the Cato Institute.
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Her post was reposted from the Cato at Liberty blog.