50 years ago, the cover of Life magazine breathlessly declared the “point of no
return for everybody.” Above that stark warning, a smaller headline proclaimed,
“Automation’s really here; jobs go scarce.”
As events unfolded, it was Life that was nearing the point of no return — the
magazine suspended weekly publication in 1972. For the rest of America, jobs
boomed; in the following decade, 21 million Americans were added to the
Throughout history, aspiring Cassandras have regularly proclaimed that new waves
of technological innovation would render huge numbers of workers idle, leading
to all manner of economic, social and political disruption.
As early as 1589, Queen Elizabeth I refused a patent on a knitting machine for
fear it would put “my poor subjects” out of work.
In the 1930s, the great John Maynard Keynes predicted widespread job losses “due
to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace
at which we can find new uses for labour.”
So far, of course, they’ve all been wrong. But that has not prevented a cascade
of shrill new proclamations that — notwithstanding centuries of history — “this
time is different”: The technology revolution will impair the livelihoods of
millions of Americans.
Even The Economist has weighed in, with a special section declaring on its cover
that robots are the “immigrants from the future.”
Let’s go back to first principles. Call it automation, call it robots, or call
it technology; it all comes down to the concept of producing more with fewer
workers. Far from being a scary prospect, that’s a good thing.
Becoming more efficient (what economists call “productivity”) has always been
central to a growing economy. Without higher productivity, wages can’t go up and
standards of living can’t improve.
That’s why, in the sweep of history, the human condition barely improved for
centuries, until the early days of the industrial revolution, when
transformational new technologies (the robots of their day) were introduced.
Consider the case of agriculture, after the arrival of tractors, combines and
scientific farming methods. A century ago, about 30 percent of Americans labored
on farms; today, the United States is the world’s biggest exporter of
agricultural products, even though the sector employs just 2 percent of
The trick is not to protect old jobs, as the Luddites who endeavored to smash
all machinery sought to do, but to create new ones. And since the invention of
the wheel, that’s what has occurred.
When was the last time you talked to a telephone operator? And yet if rotary
dial telephones hadn’t been invented, millions of Americans would currently be
wastefully employed saying “Central” every time someone picked up a telephone
receiver. More recently but similarly, the Internet has rendered human directory
assistance nearly extinct.
Of course, I can’t prove that the impact of some new wave of technological
innovation won’t ever upend thousands of years of history. But it hasn’t
If technology were supplanting jobs, productivity — the measure of each worker’s
output — would be rising sharply. However, that’s not happening. In fact,
productivity growth in recent years has been sluggish (an even scarier concern).
That has led to fears about the opposite problem, the possibility that
technological advances won’t be robust enough to provide the productivity
increases needed to sustain income growth.
I don’t buy that either. As recently as 30 years ago, few of us would have
foreseen the information technology revolution, with the vast gains in
efficiency that have flowed from it.
To be sure, technology has changed the nature of work — more specialized
training is now required for many jobs — and consequently, it has contributed to
the sharp rise in income inequality.
But technology is not the prime culprit behind our languid employment and income
growth. That honor belongs to globalization, and particularly the ability of
companies to substitute far less expensive and increasingly skilled labor in
To address these very real challenges, we should be embracing technology, not
fearing it. That means educating and training Americans to perform the more
skilled jobs that cannot yet be performed by workers in developing countries.
And let’s not forget that we are world leaders in industries like education,
medicine, technology, entertainment and yes, even financial services.
Many of these sectors generate skilled jobs — nurses, who are in high demand,
earn an average of $65,000 per year — and even substantial export dollars. Of
course, not every worker can be retrained, and so we must help those who aren’t
suitable for the new jobs through more robust social welfare programs.
We mustn’t become a nation of robot worriers. That will merely guarantee that
our incomes and standards of living will continue to stagnate.