How Machines Destroy and Create Jobs
“There’s just doesn’t seem to be many blacksmith jobs these days.”
At first glance, this would be a ridiculous thing to say. Of course there aren’t many blacksmiths around. We live in a modern society and machines do a way better job of making things from metal anyways.
However, it also raises an important point.
What if machines are better at driving long-haul trucks? What if machines are better servers at McDonald’s? What if robots did your taxes for you?
While some of these ideas are contentious today, in the future we may look back thinking that our fears were ill-placed. The truth is that the job landscape is constantly in flux as technology changes.
Some of today’s jobs with high automation potential may be the future “blacksmiths”, and we should not be surprised if they go away. The best thing that we can do is to understand these trends and build a set of skills that will be in demand in any market.
The Trend is Your Friend
The following graphics from NPR shows the evolution of jobs over time in the United States.
The first divides jobs into four main categories: white collar, blue collar, farming, and services. It shows how the composition of the overall job market has changed over the last 165 years:
The second shows the same information, but plotted by the total number of jobs:
There were 10 million farmers in America in the early 20th century.
Now there’s closer to one million, and yet those farmers produce way more food. Technology may have “killed off” the majority of farm jobs, but at the same time new technology created jobs in the service, blue collar, and white collar industries.
We may now be at a similar inflection point for other careers – this interactive graphic shows some of the jobs that have been on the decline in recent years.
In 1960, a whopping 11% of the workforce was employed in factories. Today only 4% are employed in factories.
In the late 1970s, almost 5% of the workforce was secretaries. Today, we’re at about half that, but professionals can be just as productive without a secretary thanks to better computer software.
Yes, there are globalization issues at play here as well, but even a modern domestic factory such as the Tesla Gigafactory (which has the largest building by footprint in the world) will only employ about 6,000 people. The majority of the work will be done by robots.
And while it seems scary to think about the rise of machines and a faster pace of technological advancement, it’s important to recognize that these types of sweeping changes to the job market have happened throughout history.
The point is, try not to be the 21st century version of a “blacksmith”.