Technology is "killing middle-class jobs," screams alarmist AP headline

Yes, there's a recession, writes Bernard Condon and Paul Wiseman at the Associated Press. "Increasingly, jobs are disappearing in the service sector, home to two-thirds of all workers. They're being obliterated by technology."


  1. Technology generally only replaces repetitive, unpleasant, uncreative work. If you’ve been screwing the lids on toothpaste tubes for a living for the past 30 years, you may well fear the introduction of the paste-capper-2000. but at the end of the day you’ll re-train and end up doing something more enjoyable and worthwhile for a living. Same goes for middle management, I’d much rather work for a system I understand, than a moody asshole with a superiority complex. (I’m a biased anti-authoritarian malcontent though.)

    1. I totally agree. But I also sometimes like doing repetitive work. A job I held not very long ago had a not-insignificant amount of manual data entry and paper filing which I many times over thought about ways to eliminate through automation and switching to a totally electronic system. I never did, partially because there was some part of me that wanted a mindless task to work on at three in the afternoon in lieu of doing something mentally draining.

      There was no economic argument for doing it the way I was, but my supervisors were happy with the existing process and automating it wouldn’t have made me happier. As much as I pretend I could have used my new-found free time to do something I enjoyed more, I knew that wasn’t going to be the case in reality. Yay bureaucracy.

          1. I enjoy my job and had to outsource watching cat videos. Once a week I get an executive summary of a few dozen vids of cats wearing cool glasses and/or playing piano and there’s a teenager in Kowloon who does my LOLing for me.

    2. Ignoring for a minute that what you espouse is a very outdated assumption (some repetitive jobs like accounting are still flourishing, while “creative” professions like designers are suffering) and taking a long view, the problem is that these “repetitive” jobs kept busy (if not content) significant amounts of the human population, enshrining the money-for-work exchange in our culture. 

      We still haven’t figured out how to get new, less-repetitive occupations for these masses — you can only have so many “internet jobs” — and this is slowly breaking down that exchange system. Elites don’t really feel this is a problem, because they are the ones reaping huge rewards from increasingly-more-intelligent automation, but lower classes are feeling the hit. 

      Ned Ludd was defeated because factories required enough new workers to offset the jobs lost in artisan professions. At the moment, I can’t see how we can repeat that trick today. The only professions which still require manpower in amounts directly linked to actual population numbers (healthcare, teaching) are the ones we’re happily dismissing as socially unworthy in many “civilized countries” nowadays.

      1.  My god, I was not expecting an informed post here… next you’ll start quoting Queen Victoria or Captain Swing!

        Time enough for the Reinvention of Work whenever the oil and clean air runs out, though, I guess.

      2. So far healthcare and education have had the political wagons circled around them. The labor lobbies in those industries have the power to affect laws and protect their jobs and as a consequence we have less cost-effective services. 

        What’s a 10% savings in healthcare cost worth weighed against 300,000 jobs? Who should be making that decision?

        Regardless, they’ll soon enough feel the lash of innovation too and the number of jobs will plummet, just as they have been in other industries.

        Ultimately, the market has no unimpeachable incentive to keep people employed. High unemployment makes it cheaper to fill open positions. If it’s more efficient to involve only 50% of the population in the economy and give them all proportionally more money, you can trust the market to favor this scenario. As energy growth slows and automation increases, conditions become even more favorable. 

        We’re headed for a shrinking proportion of people who are meaningfully participating in the economy.

        Are we willing to sacrifice efficiency and start creating arbitrary rules for the sake of employing a larger percentage of the population? 

        It’s an integral part of the American character to loathe the sight of someone getting paid more than we might think is warranted… 

        If you could create employment regulations that slow growth from 4% with 75% employment, to 2% with 95% employment, would you do it? 

        Innovation and growth are not guaranteed to be net job-creators.

        What happens when we move into a longer, more stable period where wealth is created by doing more with less, instead of doing more with more?

        1. Ultimately, the market has no unimpeachable incentive to keep people employed.

          That’s the Ronald Reagan/Milton Friedman mantra, certainly.

          But in reality the entire reason for existence of the labor market is to keep the masses employed; it’s the cheapest and most effective way to keep them from rebelling and taking the goods of the rich by force.  If the powerful few just chain everybody else up it costs more, and slaves provide poor quality goods and services compared to freemen.

          It’s what it’s all about.  Keeping the majority of people happy and usefully occupied.  Freud said people need “work, play and love” to be happy and productive, and nobody’s proved him wrong yet.  If you ever manage to lock huge numbers of people out of the market by denying them work, your nation will fall, probably bloodily.

          1. If you do it slowly and steadily, there will be no rebellion for a long, long time. Particularly if the rest of the rich world is on a similar path. The wealthy are still very much winning the culture war, popular organizing has a long way to go. You would really need 100,000+ person actions in multiple major cities sustained for a timescale measured in weeks (at least) to get radical change here. It can happen, but we’ve got a lot more pain to bear before it does.

            But yes, the fundamental equation is when do the costs of weakening popular access to wealth overcome the benefits of using labor increasingly efficiently.

          2. Have you not noticed all the articles posted on BB about the police/surveillance state? Or drones, or the crackdown on Occupy? Do you think that is a coincidence? The elites know full well what’s coming.

          3.  When the number of elites who know which way is up (hello, Warren Buffet) are outnumbered by the clueless incompetent elites, that’s when the system fails.  Often quite bloodily.  The key understanding is that the praetorians are part of not the ruling class….

      3. Excellent response.  Also teaching is under threat.  At my university they are soliciting proposals for grants to convert “portions” of classes to online.  A class I help design (and which was a nice, friendly intro to CS) is now being moved to online.  A lot of lecturers could be put out of work by online education.  There is a movement to allow online K12 education too.

        Everyone else in my immediate family was in graphic design or pre-press.  Full-time jobs in those areas were decimated by technology.

        1. The “problem” of teaching, though, is that it really works better when you get as close to a teacher/pupil ratio of 1 as possible — ideally, everyone would have their private teacher on any given subject, available at any time. In this sense, pre-recorded online education is just sub-optimal: we trade distribution scale for effectiveness. 

          Non-recorded online teaching can disrupt in other ways, because removing geographical restrictions might make some processes a bit more effective, but not by much overall, in my view. You might have 100 teachers in 1 location rather than 10 in 10 locations, but (ideally) you’d still have 100 teachers — or more, because of multiple subjects. Teacher’s utilization rates are already through the roof (i.e. they don’t really spend much time idle as it is), and very little of that work is actually due to location.

          I guess we will find out about this when the current wave of “modernism” (i.e. doing things online because we can, not because we should) ends, we can study what works and what doesn’t, and hire accordingly.

          1. You’re assuming that online education = passively watching an instructional video, but it can be a lot more than that. A well designed on-line system could monitor performance of each individual child, identify weaknesses, and adapt the curriculum to address those. 
            If education, rather than child-minding, is what you are after, then I suspect in many cases on-line delivery will be superior to what has gone before. Certainly superior to the hugely unimaginative “write notes down from blackboard” lecture model I had to suffer.

    3. The problem is not everybody is cut out to do creative, “enjoyable” work. Perhaps these times are gone for good, but my grandfather (with only a high school education) was able to have an assembly-line job, that while perhaps repetitive and unpleasant, allowed him to own his own house, live a comfortable middle-class existence and send his son to university. People like my grandfather would be lucky to get a job working at Wal-Mart today — and that’s kind of why social mobility has been dropping. I don’t really have a solution, but it’s more complicated than just saying “well, those automatable jobs weren’t worth having anyhow”.

    4. Actually, you will retrain for a job that pays less and is almost certainly less desirable. You can’t retrain for a job that doesn’t exist, unless you can get up a whole lot capital and invent yourself a market that no one knew existed.

      The jobs that are going away are being replaced by lower paying, less desirable jobs, not better-paying more desirable jobs. The reality is that what you describe will happen for a small minority of those laid off. The majority of people will move to a worse job, because worse jobs are actually being created and while better jobs are not.

    5. 99.999999% of all jobs are repetitive, unpleasant, uncreative work.

      If you think that everyone is just going to become a robotics engineer or computer programmer you’re in for a shock.

      (Not to mention that we will never need that many of those people anyway.  It’s generally unwise to bet against the future capability of tech.)

    6. “Technology generally only replaces repetitive, unpleasant, uncreative work.”

      That’s a bit of an elitist view, to be honest.

      I once had a job working for a mortgage company 15 years ago. I managed appraisal orders. I manually found an appraiser (government loans, so a govvy appraiser), created an appraisal order, and shipped out the request via UPS or FedEx. It’s the sort of job that can be completely automated today (and honestly was close to being eliminated by the time I left the company five years later).

      But that position, those twelve months, gave me a job, the ability to rent an apartment and get a car, and get a head start into a better position at the company. And that eventually was my kickstart into a long, happy career as an analyst in IT. I also made a ton of friends in my office and across the country, some of which are still friends today.

      I’m not saying that I want people to be stuck in bad positions, nor do I think that the AP is right in making technology to be some sort of job-killing boogeyman. But some of the jobs that get eliminated in pursuit of improved productivity aren’t bad jobs, and they’re not held by bad, lazy people. 

  2. I like that technology is to blame for a loss of mid-paying jobs and growth of low-paying jobs as opposed to, say, a global recession and the fundamental basics of capitalism.

    1. Or globalization, outsourcing, and private equity.  That’s right – Mitt Romney ate your job.  But he would prefer if you blamed Intel.

    2. The basics of capitalism are to blame (or whatever you want to call it) for (industrialization) technology.

      1. Technology is not the boogieman though, that it thus far mostly only served the already privileged is more the issue.

        “No work or love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.” Alan Watts

      2. You’re pulling in a lot of baggage under the rubric of “capitalism” if you want that to be at all true.  But if you mean capitalism in the same sense that the western ruling classes mean it when they use the term, then yes, I’ll agree.  Because to them, inheritance, investment banking, and government favoritism towards genetic elites are all part of capitalism.

  3. Hmm, there’s been some great discussion of this issue around the internet; this does seem considerably less nuanced than a lot of that.

    The only reason the US has been able to continue adding jobs to the economy for the last 50 years is by drumming up artificial demand for shit people don’t need (and is often actively bad for them) largely through marketing. But this also requires paying those people enough to buy all that shit. Stagnating wages put a limit on the amount of economic growth possible, and they’ve been stagnating for a while.

    I’m sick of the “well, technology has always ended up adding new jobs in the past…” arguments. Where do you think the new jobs will be added this time? What aren’t we doing that we could be doing that people would actually be willing to buy? And how much of that can’t be done by computers?

    Google employs about 23,000 people. The US economy needs 130 million jobs now, and this number is constantly increasing. IT will never get us to full employment. So what’s left? Are we rich enough to create 50 million new food service jobs? If everyone’s a waiter who can afford to eat out?

        1. Con-Amalgamate needs more miners in our IO mining colonies!
          Jupiter Mining Corporation needs more Third Technicians for the Red Dwarf!
          Weyland-Yutari needs more colonist for Alcheron LV-426!


          *Except your cat, don’t bring your cat.

      1. That’s fine if you’re planning on emigrating and you can afford the ticket.

        But if you do the math, we could spend the entire energy budget of the world on pushing humans out of the gravity well as efficiently as possible and we still couldn’t match the birth rate.  So those of us who remain on earth are still in the same pickle, only now we have to live in unheated, unlit hovels so that we can afford to launch the spacecraft of the elites.

    1. The only reason the US has been able to continue adding jobs to the economy for the last 50 years is by drumming up artificial demand for shit people don’t need

      Well, aren’t you a Negative Nancy. Next you’ll be telling me that you don’t like those nice Kardashians. Now, excuse me; I have to polish my wall-mounted singing fish.

    2.  When commerce has no ties to a country, does the country really have to give it any incentives/ privileges? As this progresses, the privileges of government granted corporate charters will be reworked,

  4. This article makes many bold claims, and says that they’ve done “research” to back up those claims, but never really shows us that research or details about how it was done. Show me peer-reviewed research and then we’ll talk.

    I’ve been hearing the claims that technology was destroying all of the jobs in the United States since the 1970s. In the early 1980s I became a software engineer, only to be told that it was going to be a dead industry because soon there would be computer programs that could write all of the computer programs ever needed. This was a pretty mainstream opinion in the trade press for almost a decade.

    Of course, what really happened is that large businesses in the United States  started exporting jobs, especially  manufacturing jobs, to other countries where labor was cheaper, all in the name of maximizing corporate profit, and all the while ignoring social responsibility and the long term effects of this behavior. Now cheap labor in the United States is actually bringing some of those jobs back, but the infrastructure is badly damaged.

    The vast majority of jobs are not being destroyed by technology, we’re just moving them around, from one cheap labor source to another. What’ll be really interesting though is when really paradigm-changing technology DOES come along—something like the technology described by James Burke in his speech at dConstruct 2012, “Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll”:

  5. The problem as always is the inherit flaw in the outdated system we currently employ around the world. Perhaps its time to rethink things, rather then rely on a set of rules and policies established in a different era. 

    1. Yes, the concepts and privileges of corporate charters will be reworked. If a business venture has no ties to a nation the nation owes it nothing in return.

  6.   Outsourcing through the internet is a form of technology, it actual
    makes more sense to outsource a job where the end results can be put on
    digital media as opposed to goods.

    It is just a matter of time, at this current rate, actually.

  7. As someone who was, through desperation, employed to manage a content farm, I can assure you that it’s not just the “repetitive, automatable” jobs that are disappearing from the middle class.

  8. I watched a long youtube video of a talk by Richard Wolff today.  It’s called “The Costs of Capitalism”, and seems really relevant to this. 

  9. The impact of technology on the job market seems taken as a given in these discussions when perhaps it should not be. We shipped much of our manufacturing base to China and want it back. This is the big picture. While certain technologies made this possible it seems like the wrong detail to focus on. Whatever Germany does to keep its manufacturing companies is what we should consider.

    1. Often Germany’s success is attributed to its Mittelstand companies which seem antithetically, ideologically opposed to American corporate capitalism.
      The problem is not so much what Germany does as what Germans do.

  10. The U.S. Income Distribution doesn’t lie. Elites of one sort or another are getting more and more of the wealth, and the earning power of the Middle Class and a majority of all people has stayed flat or declined. The number in poverty or  underemployed has increased. All of this is because fewer and fewer people account for more productivity. The overall economy may look healthy in total, and economists will tout the great jump in productivity in the past 40 years. The issue with this is that these changes benefit a smaller and smaller group of people. These changers are due to technology, especially the computer,  and the future is that artificial intelligence will take over more and more judgement-skilled jobs now done only by people. It isn’t just manufacturing and repetitive tasks, but also things done by professions.

    There will be less and less room for people of ordinary ability, and since Capitalism rewards productivity, we will go on rewarding those elites in areas like Software Engineering who automate good paying jobs recently done by people. When economic systems evolve to become less inclusive, political systems soon follow. The meaning of human life, how people will spend their lives, is not the primary goal here, but where investors pursuing their naturally selfish and naturally short-sighted thinking will take us. I think that it will take us into tyranny unless creative destruction yields new roles uniquely doable by people, even ordinary people. I think that engineers are especially good at triggering unintended consequences. That may work for or against us humans.

    1. The meaning of human life, how people will spend their lives, is not the primary goal here, but where investors pursuing their naturally selfish and naturally short-sighted thinking will take us.

      It’s interesting that you use the word “naturally” here.  As a parent of two very different children, I can tell you that some people have to be taught to be selfish (and BOY does the USA excel at that!) because they were born “naturally” aware of the benefits of co-operation and generosity.  Others are born with “natural” hoarding tendencies, or a “natural” inability to understand the needs of others, so they have to be taught how disregarding those needs can result in suffering for themselves.

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