Will technology take away our jobs

Smart computers won't rob all of our jobs - just the annoying ones

The fear of the climate catastrophe. The fear of total digital control. The fear of right-wing populism and the return of fascism. Of all the fears about the future of today, another one that worries most people: the fear that digitization will destroy their jobs - and lead to mass unemployment.

It is well known that technological progress has made countless jobs superfluous on several occasions without society running out of work. But this time, it is said, it will be different: Artificial intelligence will replace people even in demanding and highly paid jobs. Not only would all taxis and truck drivers be on the road once cars and trucks drive autonomously. As soon as computers can think, learn, and perform even the most complex tasks, most of today's accountants, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and journalists would be unemployed.

While the previous technological and industrial revolutions kept creating new worlds of work, this time the world is racing into a dead end. All work will be done by robots and computers, and most of our society will be impoverished except for a small elite of managers and artists. Already 200 years ago there were the machine wreckers, the Luddites, who wanted to stop technological progress out of concern for their jobs. It is only today, according to a widespread opinion, that they are right.

What is the purpose of the economy?

There is, however, a fundamental flaw behind this scenario that defines most economic debates: the notion that the main purpose of the economy is to create and maintain jobs. Politicians, corporate bosses and even economists keep saying that. But they are wrong: the real goal of the economy is to destroy jobs. Because only that brings growth and prosperity.

Economic progress means that a good or a service can be produced or provided with less labor. Then the individual can create more, and then the gross domestic product and per capita income grow. Whereby "more" does not necessarily mean more sheet metal and plastic, but higher quality and better functionality.

This is called productivity, and the higher it is in a society, the richer it becomes. The huge difference between Austria and Chad in terms of income and living conditions results primarily from the efficient use of machines and other technologies - and this includes the qualifications of employees - in Europe and the complete lack of them in Africa.

From the field to the factory to the office

This advance began with the industrial revolution. In the past, the majority of people had to work in the fields to feed the population, today you only need a few farmers who produce much more. The farmers migrated to the factories, and as these became increasingly automated, to the rapidly growing service sector. At the same time, the working days became shorter, the weekends and vacations longer. The result is a society in which people work less and consume more than ever - above all, constantly new services.

The digital revolution will now make many of these service jobs obsolete. But the logic remains the same: Above all, jobs that are boring and tedious will disappear. A computer will soon be able to write the short message on the STANDARD website about the latest economic figures, but not this text. Journalists can concentrate on what is essential and beautiful in their work, as can lawyers and medical professionals.

When computers correct and grade schoolwork, teachers are freed from the greatest nuisance of their daily work. You have more time for lessons, which in turn improves the quality of education. And when millions of students follow the same lecture from Harvard, Oxford or Vienna via video and laptop, then the lecturers at the individual universities can lead discussions and conduct research.

Diagnosis from the computer, attention from the doctor

GDP will not fall as a result, but will continue to rise, as will the quality of goods and services. If an algorithm creates the diagnosis in an ordination and recommends the right therapy, there will be fewer errors than before. The doctor then has time to speak and give attention - that which patients today lack most.

And even if far fewer employees are required in many sectors, new jobs will replace the old ones. Think of the many geriatric carers that our aging society will need, with robots taking over the most strenuous tasks here too. We also need more social workers, psychotherapists and other life helpers. Not because society is becoming more neurotic, but because psychological addressing and support are useful for each individual and should not be a luxury for the few. At all skill levels there will continue to be things that people do better than machines.

But the more machines take over, the more free time people have. For this free time, new offers are needed, which the market will provide: These could be more actors, more tennis trainers or ski instructors, more tour guides or more cooks who only do the creative part of the preparation in high-tech kitchens. The work cannot end at all, it can only change - and this almost always for the better.

Politicians are challenged

The only danger that arises from this progress is an imbalance in the distribution of work and income: some work a lot and earn even more, others get nothing. But this is a political problem, not an economic one. There are also numerous proven solutions for this.

A generally prescribed reduction in working hours does not bring much benefit, based on the experience that has been made in France with the 35-hour week. But due to the increasing number of part-time offers and the more flexible working hours, the overall amount of work is falling and leisure time is growing. Only higher productivity can ensure the full wage compensation that is so often desired. Whether this actually happens depends again on the political decisions. They can go wrong, as they do in the US today. But digitization is not to blame for that.

The pitfalls of basic income

One possible answer is the unconditional basic income, although it is still not clear how it should be financed in practice - and how one can prevent a minority from slipping into lifelong, highly frustrating idleness if there is no material incentive to work.

But one thing is clear: such a model only becomes affordable when machines and algorithms have actually taken over the majority of the necessary productive work. Only then do people have the opportunity to voluntarily devote themselves to all those activities that they do not need for a living.

The digitization of the world of work is not a problem. She is the solution. (Eric Frey, April 16, 2019)