Computers Really Are Taking Our Jobs

UNIVAC 1, 1951

UNIVAC 1. The first commerical computer, delivered to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951

The last great recession began in December 2007 and officially ended in June 2009. But it doesn’t feel like it’s over. Even though productivity and in many cases corporate profits have rebounded, unemployment and underemployment remain high. We have seen this pattern after each recession since the 1990s and it has been dubbed “jobless recovery.”

There are many arguments about why unemployment remains so stubbornly high. Some explain that because the economy is weak employers are afraid to grow and reluctant to hire. Others have argued that the economy is facing stagnation and a failure of innovation, especially relative to booming economies in Asia and India. For educators, the “skills gap” explanation has been the most pertinent. This posits that employers now require different, generally higher skill levels from their workers and education is not providing what is needed. Consequently too many people are simply unprepared for work in the 21st Century.

A new book, Race Against the Machine, by MIT Sloan School of Business professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee puts an additional explanation in very clear and accessible terms. It’s not simply that we’re afraid to grow, or stagnating, or even unskilled. Instead, they argue, we’re out of work because, as we have feared for some time, computers really are taking our jobs, and they’re getting better at it every year. Computers are faster and cheaper than people at repetitive tasks, like filing documents, and building things on an assembly line. And as they get more powerful, they can take on more sophisticated repetitive tasks like reading X-rays, analyzing legal documents, and geocoding address data. And equally, if not more important, computerization allows for the reorganization of tasks in a way that eliminates the need for many jobs. Internet shoppers don’t need store clerks; Google searchers don’t need librarians; and Facebook friends don’t need letter carriers. Continue reading