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.
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.
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.