Workers Displaced by Robotics

Posted: April 19, 2012 in Commentary
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Industrial AgeWhen ATM’s first appeared on our streets it was a wonderful convenience: now you could get cash at any time of the day or night as long as the machines were in working order. The banks got to replace tellers with tireless computers who didn’t care about belonging to a union, and were there for the bank and their customers 24/7.

The brilliance of these cash dispensers was that when a customer made a deposit, or withdrew funds, or made a transfer the customer was doing the data entry for the bank! To add insult to injury, later banks would charge fees to the customer for making the ATM transactions! Banks didn’t have to pay a human teller and customers were working for the bank and paying them for the privilege.

Lately when you park your car at the mall parking lot, a machine now processes the ticket and fee, and drivers do the data processing. Result? Thousands of parking lot attendants across the country are out of a job.

There are about eight self-checkout stations at the local supermarket chain. Convenient? Yes. Killing the bargaining power of union workers? Certainly. Once again, the customer does the data processing and bagging of the groceries and pays to do so.

When you shop online for a book, you enter your data which is stored on a computer, buy the book for less than it would cost at your local brick and mortar store and wait for it to arrive on your doorstep. More jobs lost to the efficiency of technology.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love all this technological advancement, but not enough jobs are being created to replace the ones that are lost. Unemployment is at a record high; while corporate profits are soaring. Wages are flat but the cost of food and gas rise steeply. The gap between the (less than) 1% and the 99% is wider than ever.

As Jeremy Rifkin noted in his book The End of Work, these lower and middle jobs are gone and they are not coming back. Less and less people are required to keep the machinery going and there are not enough positions that the unemployed can be retrained to fill. Hi-tech has permanently taken their place.

In the 1950’s when we looked forward to the “Jetson’s” fantasy of the near future, we might have thought that computers, hi-tech and robotics would have freed us from the drudgery of mindless work. Perhaps a three-day work week? More leisure time to spend with our families or to pursue our passions – whatever they might be.

The workers who created the wealth might have thought they had an ally in the robot; that the wealth the tireless computers would produce, might be shared with the general population via fair taxation, and dividends paid back to the civilian population. After all people still need to spend money in the marketplace to keep the economy working and sustainable. This “brave new world” would follow if we thought the machines belonged to all of us.

As the 1% got richer and richer over the last thirty years, owned the political process and co-opted the media, it seems like they see a need to defend themselves from the desperate hordes who have now lost their homes to unscrupulous banks. Folks who were once proud members of a robust middle class are finding themselves now permanently unemployed at the bottom of the pyramid. They can’t retrain “up” where there are fewer and fewer jobs, and fading skills make them less and less relevant.

I bring this up because the connection between hi-tech and chronic unemployment is not being made often enough. Are we in denial?

  1. so… should we still have monks copying out books instead of machines printing them? Technology advances. The problem is not the machines but the crooks who presume to “own” them.

  2. While it is true that there is a connection between technology and loss of some jobs, I don’t think technology is to blame for the unemployment situation. In fact, Technology is opening up employment opportunities that didn’t exist before. For example, Social Media Management jobs were unheard of several years ago. As we evolve into this digital world, we can expect that the jobs of the future will look nothing like the ones that exist today

    That said, I was shocked when I switched to B of A on-line banking to avoid a monthly service fee and discovered that meant I could not use the services in the bank branches without being charged a fee. How crazy is that?

    • I agree that some new jobs open up but more shut down. You need far less manpower to do most anything these days (hence more wealth going to fewer and fewer people as unemployment increases) and going forward – as computers become even more sophisticated – they need even fewer people to man them, and thus fewer jobs.

      This isn’t a bad thing in itself, it just doesn’t fit the 20th century paradigm of how wealth is distributed and how labor is employed. As David Stansfield says in this thread ” Google Basic Income Guarantee as the solution to the end of work and watch Rifkin on YouTube”.

  3. davidstansfield says:

    Google Basic Income Guarantee as the solution to the end of work and watch Rifkin on YouTube and move to Germany – they’re so far ahead, it’s embarrassing.

    • In Germany, at least 50% of the Boards of Directors must be voted in by workers on the factory floor. This results in Directors who care about their workers and worker issues while insuring a smaller gap in earnings between the CEO’s and their staff. This also results in a more secure middle class who can actually continue to buy goods and services in a more stable marketplace!

  4. BlaseD says:

    Great article. Right now France is moving toward an automated society as fast as possible and it is interesting to watch. Their work structure is much different. Will there be more jobs to replace those now done by machines? The general opinion I keep hearing is no.

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