As automation and artificial intelligence technologies improve, many people worry about the future of work. If millions of human workers no longer have jobs, the worriers ask, what will people do, how will they provide for themselves and their families, and what changes might occur (or be needed) in order for society to adjust?
Many economists say there is no need to worry. They point to how past major transformations in work tasks and labor markets – specifically the Industrial Revolution during the 18th and 19th centuries – did not lead to major social upheaval or widespread suffering. These economists say that when technology destroys jobs, people find other jobs. As one economist argued:
"Since the dawn of the industrial age, a recurrent fear has been that technological change will spawn mass unemployment. Neoclassical economists predicted that this would not happen, because people would find other jobs, albeit possibly after a long period of painful adjustment. By and large, that prediction has proven to be correct."
They are definitely right about the long period of painful adjustment! The aftermath of the Industrial Revolution involved two major Communist revolutions, whose death toll approaches 100 million. The stabilizing influence of the modern social welfare state emerged only after World War II, nearly 200 years on from the 18th-century beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.
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Today, as globalization and automation dramatically boost corporate productivity, many workers have seen their wages stagnate. The increasing power of automation and artificial intelligence technology means more pain may follow. Are these economists minimizing the historical record when projecting the future, essentially telling us not to worry because in a century or two things will get better?