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Is Technology Finally Destroying Jobs Much Faster Than It Creates Them?

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Technology finally destroying jobs?The Wall Street Journal has started a debate on a horror that could be occurring, as both the US, most European, and many other highly technologically developed nations struggle to see any reduction in unemployment. What is that horror?

It is nothing other than the perennial fear that technology may be finally actually improving efficiency in jobs, and is the true reason behind continuing high unemployment rates.

There are some facts which suggest that this may be occurring and the US data, provided by the Wall Street Journal, stacks up as follows:

  • $800 billion has been pumped into the US economy in stimulus packages and $2 trillion worth of extra dollars have been printed, in recent years. But, for all that the US saw a pathetically low net 36,000 jobs created last month. They say that isn’t even enough to provide new jobs for population growth, let alone bring citizens back into work.
  • 26 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed on on anything from lost housing jobs to globalization.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics data for December shows 4,184,000 workers (seasonally adjusted) were taken on, and 4,162,000 were “separated” (that is – laid off or left employment). The point here is that the 36,000 of new jobs is tiny compared with the total flow in and out of work, and minute in comparison to the size of the US working population.

So,can technology really have turned back to bite us? It is a staple of much science fiction, so why not?

It is not unreasonable to think that maybe something new is happening here, something which has not yet been realized. Could that factor be that jobs are now being wiped out so fast by technological efficiencies, that all the new pursuits and job opportunities being created by it are now, at this point in the development of society, failing to keep up with new efficiencies being achieved. Could we have turned a corner with our new technologies, especially through the new uses of the internet, becoming big overall job destroyers?

The Wall Street Journal article does a great job at classifying different job types, and then considering the plight of those jobs which are under threat. It is easy to see career paths in areas, from postmen to librarians over the next 10 years, being largely wiped out.

The spectre of high unemployment amongst Lawyers and Doctors is also raised as technology like (for example) body scanners moves up a level or two in intelligence. For example research lawyers will become unnecessary when a Google search is all that is needed to discover legal search information on people and businesses, once the internet becomes all-encompassing in its scope and usage.

Doctors will not be needed (the article suggest) if after a scan the scanning machine becomes the entity which provides the diagnosis – replacing the doctor, and gives out the recommended actions to treat the patient, simply by running its own intelligent internal software.

The reader will at this point, however, wonder where there is any real evidence that the unemployment statistics are anything other than recession related. After all, technology has been seen as a big destroyer of work for generations, although so far the effect has been only to improve overall living standards while individual job areas evolve. For every area where technology takes over and replaces jobs, there has seemingly been another area in which new jobs are created.

Just look at the armies of IT experts working throughout the globe to keep our computer systems operating. Almost none of those jobs existed 40 years ago, and few if any press pundits would have predicted them being needed at all, at that time.

IT jobs have also been remarkably resilient throughout the recession. As the internet evolves so are the needs for greater supervision and control of the internet which are yet to fully work through in new jobs.

The demand for Doctors will hardly reduce as the world’s population becomes older. They will simply need to be freed from all routine tasks for doing other things. Technical developments are creating many new and additional treatments that are being used now, and will continue to be developed in the future. These new medical procedures will tend to increase the demand for Doctors to work with patients over-time. More and more operations are being carried out as our technology driven capabilities to extend life rise.

The Wall Street Journal piece ends, just as we have here, on an up-beat note suggesting that there is no need to be concerned. The US economy has always been fantastically resillient. With very little doubt it will return to being a powerhouse, just as it has before. It is just that the waiting time is just going to be longer than they had thought.

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