Fears that robots and other automated machines will replace jobs and create a world devoid of work are unfounded, according to a study by Deloitte economists.
The report, entitled Technology and people: The great job-creating machine, has looked at long-term historical trends relating to new technologies and their impact on employment and society, and found that in almost all instances the effect is positive in the long term.
The report authors, Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole, noted that many dangerous or boring jobs have been mechanised since the Industrial Revolution.
"Routine jobs, both cognitive and manual, have suffered most, because technology can readily substitute for labour. Job losses in white collar occupations involving the processing of paperwork and in manufacturing speak to this," they said.
For instance, the number of people involved in washing and laundering was 200,000 in 1901 in a population of 32.5 million. In 2011, of a population of 56.1 million, 35,000 people worked in the sector, and mostly in commercial launderettes.
"A collision of technologies, indoor plumbing, electricity and the affordable automatic washing machine have all but put paid to large laundries and the drudgery of hand washing," the report explained.
Similar trends have occurred in manufacturing and agriculture where the numbers of workers required has declined as technology made many roles redundant.
However, while jobs may have been lost, the use of technology and machines improved productivity and output and led to lower prices and increased availability.
Not only this, but automating processes in these industries has freed up more of the workforce to enter industries with more benefits to society.
These range from skilled workers such as accountants, to ‘caring’ professionals, such as teachers and health workers, and even ‘lifestyle roles’, such as hairdressers and bar workers, as people have free time and disposable incomes.
For instance, the number of nurses in the UK rose from just 28,000 in the 1871 census to almost 750,000 in 2011. While in 1871 there was one hairdresser/barber for every 1,793 citizens whereas now there is one for every 287.
Furthermore, in the technology market itself, new innovations led to new jobs. In the past 35 years the number of IT managers has risen by a factor of 6.5 to 327,000, while the number of programmers and software development professionals has risen by a factor of three to 274,160.
The report argues that this should all serve as a positive sign from history that, while jobs can be lost in certain areas because of technology, it ultimately leads to improvements for society in terms of productivity and new and better jobs.
“Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labour than at any time in the last 150 years,” it said.
“Technology has transformed productivity and living standards, in the process creating new employment in new sectors. Machines will continue to reduce prices, democratising what was once the preserve of the affluent and furnishing the income for increased spending in new and existing areas.
“The work of the future is likely to be varied and have a bigger share of social interaction and empathy, thought, creativity and skill.”
However, the authors admit that it is impossible to predict exactly where future jobs will come from and what societies of the future will require.
“Who, for instance, could have predicted 60 years ago the role that coffee shops, gyms and mobile telephony would play in our lives in the early 21st century?” they said.
The study has been shortlisted for the Society of Business Economists’ Rybczynski prize.
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