The idea of humans losing their jobs to robots/computers is currently the most virulent of all the various techno-angsts going around.
It’s a valid worry. While the exact percentage estimates vary, it’s generally understood that many of today’s jobs will soon have robots filling them instead of people. Existing robot doctors, lawyers, chefs and even journalists may not perform as well as their human counterparts yet, but they will inevitably improve—and dramatically so in many cases. Humans, not so much.
The calming counter-argument against this form of the robo-apocalypse lies in the new jobs that smarter machines will make possible. They may take existing jobs, but the work that humans will do in the future in conjunction with robots has yet to be imagined.
As logical as that is, it’s not a terribly effective counter-argument because it’s hard to fight current reality with future possibilities that may or may not come to pass.
The Pew Research Center is coming at the issue from another, better angle by measuring and highlighting the jobs that didn’t exist as little as 15 years ago. As per its new study:
In 2013, an estimated 165,100 Americans worked as computer network support specialists, 141,270 as computer network architects, and 78,020 as information security analysts. None of those occupations existed on their own in 1999, though some workers in those fields likely were included in broader job classifications such as “computer programmers” or “network systems and data communications analysts.” But listing them separately speaks to the importance of networked computing in today’s economy.
Other jobs that didn’t exist in 1999 were web developer and logistician and a host of positions within telecommunications and renewable energy. Most of these new jobs were made possible by technological advances, the Pew report says.
The findings are backed up by a more broad look into the past. As per the chart below from the National Bureau of Economic Research, nearly three-quarters of the U.S. labour force worked on farms in 1800 [PDF]. By 1960, that number had dwindled to less than nine per cent, with many workers having moved into manufacturing:
Like us, those 19th century farm workers had trouble imagining what sorts of jobs awaited them as agriculture became automated.
Certainly none of them could imagine in their wildest dreams that their descendants would work as computer network support specialists or web developers, just as people today have difficulty foreseeing what their children and grandchildren will be doing.