There’s a lot of attention given to the explosion of automation, specifically to the potential impact on the economy and the workforce.
Before going further, an overview of history might be helpful. After all, it can be a predictor of the future. As Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
Automation isn’t new. The first industrial revolution started in the 18th century in Britain, but over a few short years spread around the globe. The first wave of the industrial revolution shifted to large factories with mechanization which led to mass production.
Certainly, the industrial revolution brought about many changes—some good and some not so good. It required radical adjustment by government, business and the workforce. The transition was painful, and it didn’t happen overnight. With the advent of mechanization, it would take more than another generation to solve some of these issues.
The negative outcomes were brutal. Factory work was loaded with long hours, stress, injuries, and a host of other issues but, for the most part, these shortcomings were addressed with time. The industrial revolution was the springboard to much of what society enjoys today.
Most of what we use in our daily lives can be attributed to this era of manufacturing. It opened the door for greatly improved economies which bettered society and resulted in improved lives for the working class of industrialized countries.
During this era there were concerns about employment and wages. What happened to the workforce? Did workers become extinct? Did workers’ financial situation decline? Were living conditions adversely affected?
The massive job loss didn’t happen as feared. Even though productivity dramatically improved, the number of jobs increased dramatically. Although some jobs and tasks were replaced by mechanization, far more jobs were created, many at higher wages. Because of higher wages, living conditions and education improved significantly.
What can be expected from this current wave of change, referred to as the fourth wave of the industrial revolution and led by the expansion of artificial intelligence (AI)? Will the sky fall, or can we expect the same outcome as the first three waves? The story is still being written.
As the first wave of the industrial revolution hit America, about half of the workforce in the U.S. was dedicated to agriculture. However, with the advent of tractors, combines, etc., a great percentage of those jobs went away. As agricultural employment dropped off, jobs in other sectors grew exponentially. Displaced farm-related workers had to relocate to take other employment and learn new skills. Different work mostly at higher wages created a new and expanding middle class. (Sadly, some workers were unable, or unwilling, to make the transition, but that’s another story.)
Now that society is moving quickly into the fourth wave of industrial revolution, what can we expect?
Experts disagree. As before, we should expect to have short-term labor displacement as some jobs fade away. Different skills will be needed to fill new jobs, many of which are not even known now. (About a third of the jobs in the U.S. today didn’t exist three decades ago.)
If history is any barometer, wages will increase, causing a better standard of living for the majority of workers, their families, and society.
One thing is for sure: progress isn’t going to stop. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher living in 500 B.C., is reported to have said, “There is nothing permanent, except change,” so we’re going to have to find some way to come to grips with what is on the horizon.
Just like during the previous industrial revolutions, it will take everyone working together to make the transition. Government and business must focus on providing the right skills and training for the current workforce to continue the positive impact of robotics on employment, job quality and wages for both the immediate and future workers.
Workers must be willing to accept that another major change is looming. Maya Angelou said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” If history tells us anything, this change won’t spell doom and gloom for the workforce. Automation and AI will likely be the launch pad for bigger and better tomorrows.