We’re in a time of technological change, one characterized by machines that think, rather than by machines that do. So what impact will these new technologies have on our jobs and lives? Nobel Laureates in Economic Sciences share their views.
For centuries, technology has significantly improved people's lives, so why are many of us suspicious of tech and what the future holds? One of the most commonly cited reasons is the fear of mass unemployment.
For every headline that claims robots are coming for all of our jobs, there are just as many claiming that technology will be precisely what saves the labor market. A McKinsey report published at the end of 2017, predicts that up to 800 million jobs could be displaced by automation by the year 2030.
In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that humans would move to a 15-hour work week because of technological change. Fast forward 88 years, and we’re worrying more than ever about the impact of automation and its effect on the value humans can bring. Should we be embracing the Keynesian lifestyle or are we creating a self-destructive situation?
Technological progress changes not so much the number of jobs, but the kinds of jobs.
Nobel Laureate Robert M. Solow believes that even if more of the US economy’s growth is driven by technological progress, people will still play a vital role if they have the right skills. The modern technology revolution may be transforming the way we do business, but humans are still in the driver’s seat.
“The advance of technology has not created an unemployment problem for modern industrial societies,” says Solow. “Keep in mind that the fear that technological progress would bring unemployment goes back 250 years, from the very first Industrial Revolution. Technological progress changes not so much the number of jobs, but the kinds of jobs. What sort of things people do.”
So will we still be needed in an age of automation? It was his ground-breaking work and answers to questions like this that won Nobel Laureate James E. Meade the prize in 1977. He believed that technology, and robots in particular, could lead to people doing fewer of the jobs that are available in an economy.
“From my point of view, this will be a significant moment in history,” said Meade. “It may turn out to be the great moment of history. The moment when everything changes. When we no longer work, but have machinery working for us.”
It may turn out to be the great moment of history.
As it stands today, replacing or displacing most workers in many industries would be too expensive of an undertaking, and so many economists don’t feel that humans are in danger of this happening. Yet.
To counteract jobs being taken by robots, you need a sense of adventure.
Nobel Laureate Michael Spence thinks that for now, even though you can tell machines how to do something, you still need humans to tell them how to learn. “Robots are now quite capable of assembling electronic products,” says Spence. “They can see, they have fine motor coordination, they don’t make mistakes, they’re very precise.”
While his concern is mostly around the impending rise of artificial intelligence in the labor market, he doesn’t believe that this will have a negative effect on everybody.
“The main beneficiaries of new technologies will be our youth, the people who will suffer are those whose jobs are replaced by machines,” says Spence. “To counteract jobs being taken by robots, you need a sense of adventure, and be willing to take risks.”
Laureate Robert C. Merton is also optimistic about the future, depending on the job at hand. He acknowledges that while “fabulous technologies” have been, and are being, developed, he doesn’t think they’ll be replacing all human functions just yet.
“Change is inevitable, technology is accelerating, but it’s what you do with your skills that makes the difference,” says Merton. “And we need luck too, but people who work harder, and are better educated, often seem to be luckier. So if you prepare well, when you have a serendipitous event or some good luck, what do you do? You don’t let it go by, you seize it because you’re prepared for it.”
There is power in the knowledge that a changing labor landscape doesn’t mean it’s simply a question of lost jobs and what to do when it happens to you. It’s staying aware of the fact that change is inevitable and those who are adaptable will always come out on top.