Our endless inventiveness and bottomless desires means that we never get enough, never get enough. There’s always new work to do.
If you think about it, many of the great inventions of the last 200 years were designed to replace human labor. Tractors were developed to substitute mechanical power for human physical toil. Assembly lines were engineered to replace inconsistent human handiwork with machine perfection. Computers were programmed to swap out error-prone, inconsistent human calculation with digital perfection. These inventions have worked. We no longer dig ditches by hand, pound tools out of wrought iron or do bookkeeping using actual books.
What this means for the future of work and the challenges that automation does and does not pose for our society.
Despite a century of creating machines to do our work for us, the proportion of adults in the US with a job has consistently gone up for the past 125 years. Why hasn’t human labor become redundant and our skills obsolete? In this talk about the future of work, economist David Autor addresses the question of why there are still so many jobs and comes up with a surprising, hopeful answer.
There are actually two fundamental economic principles at stake. One has to do with human genius and creativity. The other has to do with human insatiability.
First of these the O-ring principle, and it determines the type of work that we do.
Most of the work that we do requires a multiplicity of skills, and brains and brawn, technical expertise and intuitive mastery, perspiration and inspiration in the words of Thomas Edison. In general, automating some subset of those tasks doesn’t make the other ones unnecessary. In fact, it makes them more important. It increases their economic value. In much of the work that we do, we are the O-rings.
The second principle is the never-get-enough principle, and it determines how many jobs there actually are.
You may be thinking, OK, O-ring, got it, that says the jobs that people do will be important. They can’t be done by machines, but they still need to be done. But that doesn’t tell me how many jobs there will need to be. If you think about it, isn’t it kind of self-evident that once we get sufficiently productive at something, we’ve basically worked our way out of a job? In 1900, 40 percent of all US employment was on farms. Today, it’s less than two percent. Why are there so few farmers today? It’s not because we’re eating less.
A century of productivity growth in farming means that now, a couple of million farmers can feed a nation of 320 million. That’s amazing progress, but it also means there are only so many O-ring jobs left in farming. So clearly, technology can eliminate jobs. As automation frees our time, increases the scope of what is possible, we invent new products, new ideas, new services that command our attention, occupy our time and spur consumption.
As our tools improve, technology magnifies our leverage and increases the importance of our expertise and our judgment and our creativity.