Automation rarely outright destroys jobs. It instead augments—taking over routine tasks while humans handle more complex ones. Oren Cass reviews “The Future of Work” by Darrell M. West and “Human + Machine” by Paul R. Daugherty and H. James Wilson.
Most Americans once survived hand to mouth, season to season. Technology (thankfully) destroyed their jobs. The result was not catastrophe but prosperity, because the dynamic lamented in modern parlance as “job destruction” is also called “productivity growth.” If farmers become 25% more productive, eight can grow a crop that previously required 10. The other two might still farm, yielding more or better food for the community. Or they might become barbers, allowing everyone to enjoy comparable food and the latest hairstyles.
The fear that superfluous workers might instead sit idle, reliant on support from their still-working neighbors, is a persistent one. Though such an outcome has never materialized, for prognosticators there is always a next time. In “The Future of Work,” Brookings Institution scholar Darrell West presents his version of a now-popular claim: that robotics and artificial intelligence really do make this time different.
Mr. West describes a future in which “older positions will be eliminated faster than new ones are created,” leaving “workers with few skills . . . unable to find jobs.” He warns of “social unrest” and the prospect of “dystopias that are chaotic, violent, and authoritarian in nature.” Accelerating technology requires us, he concludes, to “rethink the concept of work itself.”
The author provides an interesting glimpse at the latest innovations: nimble robots, sophisticated software, an “Internet of Things” through which everyday objects communicate with one another. He shows how these innovations might affect existing industries and spawn new ones, reducing the need for some types of jobs and increasing the need for others, as well as changing the way people work in whatever jobs they have.