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Commentary

Is technology to blame for chronic unemployment?

Marketplace Contributor Oct 10, 2012
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Most of us assume that at some point the economy is going to kick into gear. That unemployment will eventually drop below 6 percent, and that job creation will return to its previous clip of 200,000 a month. But what if we’re stuck at a new normal of high unemployment and low job growth? It’s possible because technology might just have gotten the best of us.

It used to be that new technologies generated lots of new jobs for those displaced from old ones. After farms were mechanized, Americans moved to factories. After manufacturing declined — in part due to technologies that dramatically cut the cost of shipping goods — we moved into services.

But new technologies have been eating away at services, too. Gas station attendants are long gone and telephone operators and bank tellers aren’t far behind. Endangered too are office clerks and secretaries, publishing jobs, and people providing any expertise or information that can now be digitized into a computer.

We still have plenty of jobs in retail sales, education, and health care — but these are also among the least efficient parts of our economy and pressure is building to cut costs. Here again, technology is leading the way. In the next decade, it seems likely that many retail sales workers will be being replaced by online sales. We’re about to see a wave of online courses and classrooms — supplanting some teachers.

Health care has to become more efficient. So patients will carry their own medical files on memory sticks. We’ll also have personal health apps, allowing us to self-diagnose — even measuring our own blood pressure and other vital signs.

All this is good for us as consumers — but as workers we’re putting ourselves out of business. At this rate, 50 years from now, a tiny machine may satisfy all our needs. Call it the “iEverything.” The only problem: none of us will be able to afford it because we’ll all be unemployed.

How We Survive
How We Survive
Climate change is here. Experts say we need to adapt. This series explores the role of technology in helping humanity weather the changes ahead.