This is part two in a two-part series on technology and the future of work. You can read part one of the series HERE.
When it comes to our work, there is a growing concern that robotics and automation advances will make manual labor obsolete. The fear is that automation will rapidly eliminate not only work among those in the working class with its ability to provide a living, but also the dignity and sense of purpose that productive labor provides to the greater population.
In Oren Cass’ recent book The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, a thoughtful analysis on automation’s potential disruptive impact to the American labor force is given. Cass cites several historical technology disruptions in labor due to advances in energy production and machine and factories, which displaced less efficient methods of labor-intensive work.
The interesting relationship Cass highlights is that though an advance through technology often increases productivity and reduces the human labor required for a given job, the same productivity rate increase usually comes slowly over time along with an increase in production output.
So rather than the labor force reducing with productivity increases, they often remain stable and even grow as labor adapts and shifts through retraining and repositioning within a given industry.
In fact Cass points out that economy-wide productivity output growth is exactly what happened from 1947 to 1972 coupled with rapid productivity rate growth.
Rather than seeing massive working class layoffs and a drop in the percentage of workers, the employment levels remained constant and wages substantially grew.
One notable example was the fear during the introduction of automated teller machines (ATMs). It was predicted that local bank franchises would close and many tellers put out of work.
The actual result was that the efficiencies of new ATMs allowed banks to invest in new products and services which the tellers were then retrained to provide. Bank franchises in many cases grew and overall employment actually increased!
Caution and Care Advised
However, there are vulnerable sectors and industries which are already experiencing the impact of technological advances and shifts.
Small retail businesses struggle to compete with online merchants. Service work and corporate infrastructure in employee and customer care fields are shifting to self-serve alternates with online automated platforms over skilled workers providing personalized services. Manufacturing in industries with stagnant or slow growth are particularly vulnerable and even slow productivity growth often means steady loss of employment.
A key point Cass makes is that we need to pay much more attention to the impact of the worker through the introduction of new technologies in industry and, more importantly, the need to foster overall economic growth and opportunity to offset the negative impacts.
Societal and economic growth is good. Technological development was implied in God’s mandate for humans to cultivate the earth.
It has always been fundamental to God’s desire for the world to see mankind populate and develop this world (Gen. 1:28).
God gives “skill and intelligence to know how to do any work” that serves his good purposes for our time (Exod. 26:1) and it’s our job to exercise our gifts of imagination, innovation, and productivity towards what honors him and serves the common good of our neighbors.
Steve Lindsey is the Executive Director of the Center for Faith & Work Los Angeles. As an engineer at Boeing for nearly 40 years, he often worked towards seeing how his work served God’s greater purpose for the world. He and his wife Margaret established the CFWLA in 2017 to help people reframe vocation and understand how all work, no matter the industry, has meaning and purpose.