The Losers of Progress: How does technology affect employment?



How has technology has affected employment in the United States?

Job displacement has defined eras of American history. The Gilded Age was characterized by jobless workers with no power to negotiate. The industrial revolution changed the work was done, displacing workers in the process. The Great Depression is remembered for having the highest unemployment rate in our history. To try to understand the dynamic between technology and unemployment, I looked at the 1920s. This is when mechanization began to become more financially viable: WWI dramatically decreased the supply of immigrant labor and raised labor prices, creating a greater need for mechanization (Oshima). Mechanization, while it increased productivity in the teens and 20s at record rates, also result in high levels of job displacement, which might leave families without income for many months. The 1920s economy was quickly destroyed in the Great Depression. While automation was not a major cause of the Great Depression, the unemployment services we have today were established during that period. These are a crucial part of forming a modern-day response to technological job displacement.

A moving assembly line used in 1913 by Ford to greatly increase productivity. (ThoughtCo)

While in recent years we have had record low unemployment, the discussion of technological displacement is more relevant than ever. Technology has hollowed out our economy, eliminating middle-class jobs, and growing higher-paying and lower-paying jobs (World Economic Forum). The rise of the gig economy gives a good understanding of what kinds of jobs are being created; advancements in smartphone technology have created companies like Uber. Uber replaces the middle-class jobs of taxi drivers with a few high paying software developer jobs and many more low paying driver jobs with no benefits. This is the modern manifestation of technological job displacement. 

Credit: Grant Reinero / Business News Daily

Looking Forward: How we can minimize the negative impact of technology

This problem is one that is probably most effectively addressed in the political sphere because most solutions have to happen on a systemic level. In the 2020 democratic primary, we saw candidate Andrew Yang run on Universal Basic Income, a policy designed to address the employment challenges technology is creating. Yang gained significant popularity and has recently started an organization, Humanity Forward, to advocate for Universal Basic Income. We have also seen candidates such as Bernie Sanders champion a higher minimum wage, which can better the lives of those who might be relegated to lower-paying jobs by our technological progress. When addressing the problem of technological unemployment, I believe that both of these systems are valuable. The most important policy to push for in the short term is a higher minimum wage. That would improve the lives of those most impact by the hollowing out of the economy. Looking farther into the future, it is impossible to know what might lie ahead, with artificial intelligence improving more and more each year. However, I do believe that Universal Basic Income may be an important solution if artificial intelligence does replace a large portion of jobs. In conclusion, I believe we need to advocate for a higher standard of living for the losers of technological progress, and look to more radical policies in the future, if necessary. 

Call to Action: Contact your local representative

Writing letters and voicing your support of issues lets your congress person know what policies you support. If you want to future proof the United State’s job market, find your local representative here. Send them a letter about increasing the minimum wage, and why you believe it should be increased.

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  1. April 27, 2020 by Lara

    Hi David, I really like your topic and I think that it is really relevant today because many people fear getting replaced by AI in their jobs. I agree that we should raise the minimum wage in order for a better quality of life for many. You did a great job in the presentation and I didn’t know that we ended up increasing higher and lower-paying jobs and decreasing middle-wage jobs.

  2. April 28, 2020 by tessa

    As a student considering my future I found this a very relevant and interesting topic. Over time we have seen how technology has eliminated jobs in many industries but at the same time opened up countless opportunities for employment. Looking to the future we must have a progressive mindset about traditional jobs that will be able to be completed by AI. Although in saying that, we can also see new opportunities that we must use to our advantage to be successful. This is a very engaging topic, and the way you presented it demonstrated the growing urgency for awareness. Well done David.

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