Some time ago, about 70% of Americans were employed in agriculture. And while today that number is closer to 2 percent, that doesn’t mean 68% of Americans were incapable of finding gainful employment. As the agriculture sector grew more efficient – through the increased use of machinery, automation, and intelligent software – laborers and workers shifted their skills and focus to other sectors. Much the same thing happened with the increased automation in the energy and manufacturing sectors throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Certainly, both sectors employ a smaller share of the workforce than they once did, but no one in today’s economy is unemployed because General Motors added robotic arms to their assembly lines in the 1970s.
That preface is one of the arguments why given the way touchscreens and speech recognition software have grown increasingly familiar in fast food restaurants, and self-checkout kiosks have supplanted cashier positions at grocery stores, airports, and an increasing number of retailers, it would be foolish to think the job market can’t provide new alternatives in place of those that are lost. Simply because more burger-flipping machines, automated bartenders, or other robotic replacements grow in popularity doesn’t mean the workers potentially displaced by such technologies will forever be relegated to unemployment. The U.S. labor market, both nationally and locally, has undergone far more massive transformations than what we’re seeing currently – the proliferation of fast-food kiosks included.
What this means is that there is little reason to regard increased automation as the arrival of some dystopian robotic future for huge swaths of the workforce. While the nature of some hospitality and service industry opportunities might change as fewer bartenders are needed and touchscreens replace certain cashiers, a shift in the skills required of workers shouldn’t be the reason to fear an unending increase in the ranks of the unemployed. Instead, it should be a reason for reevaluating how we prepare entrants to the workforce for the opportunities of tomorrow.
After all, the economy of tomorrow is going to look quite different than the economy of today. As a result, the U.S. education system, public assistance programs, and political culture should be focused on preparing younger generations for those new possibilities. In years to come, what is demanded from workers, what skills are most valued and what opportunities are plentiful will inevitably evolve as our world becomes more technologically advanced – and such transformation should be welcomed, as it has historically resulted in vast improvements to our overall standard of living.