New technologies are evolving at a break-neck pace, becoming faster, more efficient, more economical, and in turn currently taking a drastic toll on the middle-class job market.
According to a study by The Associated Press, nearly half of the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession were in mid-pay industries. And though the unemployment rate has steadily improved since October 2009, technology, not human workers, is stepping in to fill many of the voids left in middle class industries.
Self-check out stations at the grocery store, online shopping, digital electricity meter readers - all of these and more have contributed to the loss of millions of jobs.
But American history is replete with stories of automation threatening flesh and bone workers, and the need for adaptation is nothing new, said Matthew Young, McCoy associate professor of history at Marietta College.
Question: According to the Associated Press, millions of mid-skill jobs have disappeared in the past five years, thanks to technology that can easily do or reduce a human's work. What are some other historical examples of technological advancement impacting the American workforce?
Answer: From the perspective of American history, really I think the history of labor and industrialization in the United States has been in a constant state of change. That's really what it's about-the process of a continually changing environment. In some ways what we see right now is new and different but in some ways it is part of this big, ongoing process.
If you want a concrete example, looking at this part of the country along the Ohio River valley, we can go back 40 or 50 years and we can see this kind of process. For a long time this has been the place of a lot of heavy industry. That's basically largely gone. We're probably never going to see kind of a revival of that manufacturing sector.
Q: How is this period of technological innovation different from those in the past?
A: The thought has been if we see a downturn in one sector we would see it return in another sector in the United States. Now that's not happening so much.
Q: Why is that?
A: Technology means more efficient productivity. Basically it means more product with less labor. If you think about the auto industry it's a good example. People were already making automobiles before Henry Ford came along. What Ford did was automate the process. In reality you needed less people in order to make the product. He made it more efficient to build it.
Q: Historically, how does society adjust to these technologically driven changes in the work force and long does it take?
A: I would say that it just depends on where you look at and this is sort of the heart of the debate of America's economic future. Industrialization doesn't just change the labor force. It completely changes the nature of the culture and the society. It changes family relationships. It brings about a complete change in the way society is structured. I don't think it's too much to suggest that this shift will bring about a new type of revolution. A digital revolution perhaps?
Q: How have these technological, industrial and cultural shifts affected the middle-class?
A: I would say that definitely in today's environment we see a shrinking middle class and we don't see the opportunities growing in the middle class as they used to. The middle class has always been affected. I think the middle class has generally been the victim of increased productivity. That hurts the middle-class jobs. On the other hand though, it makes things cheaper and easier to acquire. It is kind of a double-edged sword.
Q: Has anything historically helped the country adjust when a large portion of good paying jobs suddenly disappear?
A: Some of these social programs have helped provide some security for the middle class. Programs like Social Security, programs like Medicare have helped particularly those of retirement age maintain a middle class status. Also, I think it is that person that has a broad based education that has the skills and tools they need to adapt. I think that communication skills are absolutely vital now. The ability to write effectively, do research, think critically, are all skills technology can't really replicate.
Q: Is there a technological revolution in our future?
A: We're in the middle of it right now. You almost can say this has began a process that will just continue. But I'm always cautious to say that things will just always continue to accelerate at a faster and faster pace. We just can't predict what sorts of changes this is going to bring about.
Historically, technological advance has long meant better productivity and therefore less need for workers. But society has adjusted. And though technology has cost the nation jobs, it is in no small way responsible for creating them, too, pointed out Casey Corbett, associate professor of computer graphics and web design at Washington State Community College.
Q: What are some current examples of jobs that have been cut due to technology, such as computers, digital equipment, robotics, etc.?
A: The biggest thing that I notice changing, especially in the gaming industry, is more and more mobile applications. We're going from teams of a couple hundred people that are making games like Halo to one or two people who are making little, successful games. Rovio (a video game developer) started with three people and blossomed to (popular mobile game) Angry Birds. Big companies like Xbox are worried that people are playing games on their cell phone. Just last weekend we had a big game company lay off a bunch of people.
Q: So how has technology contributed to employment?
A: As far as spurring jobs, I think the biggest thing we're noticing is that we're leaning more toward the independent technology. Everything is going application based. Most of those are made by independent small developers that are working from home. We don't need (Electric Arts). We don't need Nintendo. More and more people are working from their phones which is good because if somebody from Marietta wants to submit their own application to the App store, they can. And how many people are they going to hire? Rovio was founded in 2003 by three people. They have hired a ton of people.
Q: What sorts of tech are we currently developing and what sort of jobs could they affect?
A: They just released a law in California that allow autonomous vehicles to be on the road for the purpose of testing them. I'd say within at least 15 years we'll see autonomous vehicles on the streets.
Q: Could they replace driving jobs, such as mail carriers or truckers?
A: I don't think so. If so, it's going to be a while. I just think people don't really trust autonomous vehicles yet. It's so new. Once we see it and once it becomes part of our culture we may begin to trust it.
Q: What are some limitations humans face compared to technology?
A: Technology, nine times out of ten does not make mistakes. It is more accurate. It is always there on time. It doesn't show up late for work. As far as technology goes, if we can get something that is automated that can do it consistently, then it is going to be more efficient.
Q: On the flip side, where does technology not stack up to a physical worker?
A: Where computers are deficient is the customer service area. Technology is not very good at working with people. So customer service positions will never ever, ever be taken over by a computer.
Q: Does technology make people's jobs easier?
A: I think it makes your job more mobile. You don't have to be sitting at your desk anymore. You can be walking around shopping and still checking your email. I think we're moving from a more stationary job to a more get up and move around and enjoy life kind of job.
Q: Is there a technological revolution on our horizon and how do you think our society will adapt?
A: I think we're on information overload already. Everyone is bombarded with information constantly. We're getting texts, calls, stock quotes, etc. We are in a state of needing constant content. I think what we're going to be moving toward are things like the new Google glasses, that you wear just like glasses and they constantly stream new information. As technology advances, it gets more user integrated.