For all the fears about lost jobs and the sea changes occurring in manufacturing and retail as the Internet changes everything in its path, it’s worth noting that each successive transition in society’s economic underpinnings – be it farming or steam engine, industrial revolution or information – eventually disrupts everything around it and then, inevitably, produces more opportunities, different challenges and, ultimately, more (and newer) jobs. The Wall Street Journal’s tech writer Greg Ip points this out in a recent article.
Ip points out that as Amazon grows (and a few others), tens of thousands lose their jobs in retail. Stores close across the community, state, country, and world. But then again, to cite one of Ip’s examples, workers in former textile towns like Fall River, MA, find new beginnings. There, Amazon planned to hire 500 workers for a new fulfillment center last year. Already employment there has soared to 2,000. And workers there are earning more than at previous retail jobs.
The demise of brick-and-mortar has been accompanied it seems by the less well-publicized boom in e-commerce that has actually created more jobs in the U.S. than traditional stores have cut. And those jobs, it turns out, pay better because workers there, augmented by the latest in software and hardware technology, are so much more productive.
Throughout history automation often creates more jobs – and better-paying ones –than those it displaces. Ip points out the critical reason, a point often lost in all the bad press and noise:
“Companies don’t use automation simply to produce the same thing more cheaply. Instead, they find ways to offer entirely new, improved products. As customers flock to these new offerings, companies have to hire more people.”
The underlying angst over job displacements goes back 500 years as each successive new generation of revolutionary technology displaces the former, along with its adherents and workers. It is interesting to note that in 1589 Queen Elizabeth I refused to grant the inventor of a mechanical knitting machine a patent for fear of putting knitters out of business. More recently, in the 1930s economist John Maynard Keynes warned of tech unemployment due to the modern ability to economize the use of labor faster than new users for labor could be found.
These fears have repeatedly proven baseless. When ATMs first appeared in the 1970s it was thought to lead to fewer branches and fewer staff. Wells, Fargo itself predicted as much for the new cost-cutting technology initiative. And indeed, the average branch used one-third fewer workers by 2004. But… ATMs made it so much cheaper to operate a branch that banks ended up opening 43% more branches! The result: today, banks employ more tellers than they did in 1980 and those jobs have expanded into more interesting roles that ATMs can’t duplicate today, like “relationship banking.”
We are in a watershed period for technology, with its pace increasing steadily. This is scary stuff. People are rightly concerned. But if the past is prologue to the future – and it often is – there will once again be silver linings.
This topic is, we think, important enough to extend into a follow-up post, which we’ll do in our next one. Stay tuned…