Robots are stealing our jobs. Again. In fact, they've been stealing our jobs in one way or another since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
But when the economy's in the toilet, our fear of robotic workers reaches new heights. And that fear was well reflected in the early 1980s — a period of double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment.
The 1982 book The Omni Future Almanac outlined the many jobs that it claimed were supposed to be made obsolete by technology by the 21st century. Like nearly all predictions for the future, there's some they got right, some they got wrong, and there's a lot that's open to interpretation.
For instance, take their prediction for grocery cashiers. Sure, my local grocery store has self-checkout. But the cashier is far from an extinct job. Even the self-checkout lane has at least one human keeping an eye on things. Or take farm workers. Many aspects of modern agriculture have been automated, but a recent survey showed that nearly half of all farmers in the U.S. can't even find enough farmworkers to pick their crops. The book accurately predicted the shift from a manufacturing economy to one ostensibly built on information services, but there's still a lot that they didn't foresee.
A few of the jobs that the book predicted would be outmoded by technology:
- Grocery cashiers
- Farm workers
- Dry cleaners
- Small real estate brokers
- Door-to-door salespeople
- Toll booth operators
- Bank clerks
- Traditional telephone operators
- Art room staff (paste-up, letterer, graph maker, draftsman)
- File clerks
- "Paper" librarians
- Warehouse inventoryperson
- Warehouse packers
- Machine loaders
Again, they got quite a few right. But they also over-estimated the ability of machines to completely take over many of these jobs. The book predicted the "rapid elimination of most manual factory jobs" by the year 2000. But whether it's TV sets or jean jackets or iPhones, the relocation of factories to places where companies can find cheaper labor has far outpaced the robot uprising. And this is largely because our world is still so dependent on flesh-and-blood workers.
There seems to be a pervasive myth here in the 21st century that the technology-focused disruptors of Silicon Valley are putting people out of work by taking humans out of the equation. But in most cases this couldn't be further from the truth. The "disruptions" occurring in Silicon Valley often have more to do with simply paying people less for the same job, rather than completely automating it.
Just look at something like UberX, where non-licensed taxi drivers act as modern day jitney cabs. Outside of Uber's app, the real innovation here is the suppression of wages. Uber delivers a cheaper service than mainstream taxis by hiring drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. By utilizing independent contractors Uber doesn't have to do things like give health care coverage to their hundreds of drivers, or be held liable in case of an accident.
Uber is currently stuck with human drivers — at least until driverless cars hit the mainstream. But you can bet they're praying for those robo-taxis to arrive quickly. If only because driverless cars don't complain when you steal their tips.