Archive for February 10th, 2012

New technologies, fewer jobs?

Friday, February 10th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

Technology over the last 4 centuries has gradually made irrelevant, and actually destroyed, several jobs. Agriculture has seen an amazing increase in productivity with the yield per ha multiplied several fold and the number of people needed to farm it decreasing almost to zero. Where in the 1800 80% of the population was working in agriculture now this percentage is measured in one digit.

Even a dress can be printed!

Nevertheless, the world population has grown at least three fold, there are now 4 billion people more on the Earth if we compare today’s population with the one two centuries ago and the unemployment rate is basically the same.

We are now foreseeing even better, and more effective, technologies that will further increase productivity, in other word decrease the need for human labor.

Technologies for producing products through “printing” is now able to create ever more complex products, such as the dress worn by the model in the picture that has not been weaved but simply printed, at a cost that is significantly lower than normal since it does not require the labour involved in sewing and it uses only the amount of material that is effectively required.

This, of course, is just an example along many new production processes that are ever more based on robots and in the near future on self assembling parts. Today a building that used to require years to build can be assembled out of prefabricated parts in a matter of weeks using a fraction of the labour force that was needed before.

There are even more dramatic changes ahead, as was illustrated by Thomas Frey at a recent TED conference.

He claimed that by 2030 jobs that today are employing about 2 billion people will have vanished and the new jobs that will indeed be created in other areas will not be sufficient to make up for this decrease.
Hence, this is his point, we have to start preparing for a much higher unemployment rate and in turns start to prepare for a different  economic and social infrastructure.

Some signs are already being detected in the area of ICT. Whilst in the last three decades the efficiency injected by ICT in the economy has decreased employment in certain areas but has made up for that in increase in other areas with a positive balance, in this last few years, may be also because of the credit crunch that is shrinking investment, the overall job loss has exceeded the job gains.

As we move forward an even greater (and global) competition, with stronger pressure on efficiency and the coming shift of applying ICT not to increase local processes but to change the overall processes (similarly to the process re-engineering frenzy of the 80ies) we are likely to see the negative balance between job gain and job loss increases.

This is a big challenge. It is up to all of us to translate this evolution into better quality of life for everyone, rather than in an increased inequality were jobless equals poor and at the edges of the society .