This is the report no politician or working person wants to hear: machines are replacing workers at an alarming rate. According to an Associated Press analysis, most of the middle-class jobs lost in the Great Recession will never return and millions more are likely to vanish as well.
The cause: increasing dependence on computers and robots in the work place.
The report goes on, “For more than three decades, technology has reduced the number of jobs in manufacturing. Robots and other machines controlled by computer programs work faster and make fewer mistakes than humans. Now, that same efficiency is being unleashed in the service economy, which employs more than two-thirds of the workforce in developed countries. Technology is eliminating jobs in office buildings, retail establishments and other businesses consumers deal with every day.”
In the past technological innovations eventually created more work, and greater wealth, than they destroyed, but this time it’s different.. Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said, this time digital technologies are showing up in every corner of the economy. “Your tablet (computer) is just two or three years old and it’s already taken over our lives,”
Whole employment categories, from secretaries to travel agents, are starting to disappear. The numbers startle even labor economists. In the United States, half the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession were in industries that pay middle-class wages but only 2 percent of the 3.5 million jobs gained since the recession ended in June 2009 are in mid-pay industries.
Some occupations are beneficiaries of the march of technology, such as software engineers and app designers for smart-phones and tablet computers. Overall, though, technology is eliminating far more jobs than it’s creating.
Regarding political promises of more jobs, the report says, Obama and Romney “never tired of telling Americans how jobs were being shipped overseas. China, with its vast army of cheaper labor and low-value currency, was easy to blame. But most jobs cut in the U.S. and Europe weren’t moved. No one got them. They vanished.”
“It doesn’t have political appeal to say the reason we have a problem is we’re so successful in technology,” says Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Columbia University. “There’s no enemy there.”
It’s becoming a self-serve world. Instead of relying on someone else in the workplace, we use technology to do tasks ourselves.
The uncomfortable truth is technology is killing jobs with the help of ordinary consumers by enabling them to quickly do tasks that workers used to do full time, for salaries.
Use a self-checkout lane at the supermarket or drugstore? A worker behind a cash register used to do that.
Buy clothes without visiting a store? You’ve taken work from a salesman.
Click “accept” in an email invitation to attend a meeting? You’ve pushed an office assistant closer to unemployment.
Book your vacation using an online program? You’ve helped lay off a travel agent.
The downside of all this progress in efficiency and productivity is that the rewards are going almost exclusively to employers, leaving thousands of workers in unemployment lines.
Thanks to technology, companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index reported one-third more profit the past year than they earned the year before the Great Recession. They’ve also expanded their businesses, but total employment, at 21.1 million, has declined by a half-million.
The AP report is the first in a three-part series on the loss of middle-class jobs in the wake of the Great Recession.