Will technology change the definition of a “job”?

Will technology change the definition of a “job”?

The “giant sucking sound” you’re hearing isn’t our jobs being taken away by foreigners.  It’s the sound of our jobs being taken away by robots.  Or Artificial Intelligence.  Or powerful algorithms.  Or any number of technological tools designed to make the workplace more efficient.

In a provocative think piece published last week, investment guru Bill Gross put forward a theory that the increase in efficiency brought about by technology is changing our economy in a fundamental way.  Powerful software isn’t just giving us French-inspired 35-hour work weeks – in many cases it’s eliminating the need for our jobs altogether.

On a basic level, this is hardly new.  Technology has been changing our economies and ways of life for millennia.  From the cotton gin to the driverless car, each new innovation makes us less reliant on human labor to get the job done.

What’s new here is the type of worker who is being displaced.  Hardware tends to eliminate the need for physical labor – robots replacing humans on automobile assembly lines, for example.  Software, on the other hand, eliminates the need for service-oriented labor. Big data tools now process information in seconds that once took teams of analysts years to complete.  The casualties of the information age are back-office workers, not the blue collar grunts.

Employment data support this view.  Looking at the “recovery” periods from recent economic down cycles, the long-term employment trend is steadily declining.  A primary cause of that appears to be that each bust demonstrates that businesses can replace expensive employees with relatively inexpensive software. Those jobs get taken out of the cycle of boom and bust – they are permanently lost to technology.  Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the trend:

This hyper efficient, post-modern world we live in is amazing…until the jobs disappear.  Gross suggests that the way we think about the economy and “jobs” must change as fast as technology is changing the economy itself.  He hints that technology will change the very idea of a “job” into something far more amorphous.  Or that a form of socialism may be inevitable if we want to avoid a descent into extreme inequality.

Is the solution to just go and work for a technology company?  If that’s your theory, we invite you to apply!  Yet as a sector, even technology jobs are far from a sure thing in the long term. Given the increasingly frequent cycles of disruption, today’s revolutionary “platform” will inevitably become tomorrow’s DOS, and probably sooner than you think.  More than at any previous time, technology has turned the world of employment into a gamble.

Of course, there’s an upside to all of this.  We may have to figure out what a “job” is in the new technology-led economic order, but if that’s the biggest problem we’ve got, it’s still far preferable to the problems of every other generation.  The word that most people use for a world in which technology replaces the need for most kinds of labor is simple:  utopia.