During the Industrial Revolution, new technologies radically changed the ways that people operated their jobs. Over the last 20 years, a similar revolution has taken place as machines became more sophisticated and automated.
Some labourers lament new technologies because they think that automation will steal their jobs and create even more unemployment. Others welcome machines because they want to boost worker productivity and improve how products function.
In truth, both sides have legitimate points to consider. A closer look shows a complex relationship between machines and manual labour.
How Machines Have Changed Over the Last 20 Years
Machines have improved dramatically over the last 20 years. The improvements have largely come from the ability to develop more advanced transistor technology. In 1965, Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, predicted that his company could double the number of transistors in a chip every two years.
Moore’s prediction proved true until just a few years ago. Regardless, Intel and other companies were able to build components that made machines more efficient, predictable, and precise.
Just 20 years ago, the average person would have a hard time imagining that about 90% of the country’s population would own smartphones. Today, the chips that make smartphones possible also make machines more functional.
The Pros and Cons of Letting Machines Take Over Labour Jobs
When people talk about machines taking over manual labour jobs, someone will worry that employment rates will fall and the working class will suffer. Andy Haldane, the chief economist for Bank of England, said as much in 2015.
Bank of England’s study shows that automation threatens to replace workers who perform repetitive tasks, which are common among manual labour positions. The study estimates that automated robots could cost the UK 15 million jobs. Losing so many jobs would widen the wage gap and potentially send the world’s economy into a downward spiral.
From another perspective, it’s unfair to blame machines for job losses. In fact, a study of England’s census results shows that technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed.
Historically, machines have replaced dangerous and dull jobs. The machines, therefore, may have saved lives while creating more jobs. It’s important to note, though, that the number of jobs requiring manual labour has fallen while the number of jobs that require specialised skills has increased.
As a result, machines have saved workers from tedious, dangerous jobs while widening the wage gap. Overall, the economy and working conditions have improved, but the Digital Revolution has made it difficult for unskilled labourers to find jobs that pay fair wages.
The Pros and Cons of Keeping Humans as Manual Labourers
Just as there are pros and cons of letting machines perform manual labour jobs, there are good and bad points of keeping humans as manual labourers.
Continuing to hire humans solves the unemployment problem. With more jobs available, everyone should find it easier to secure employment. Theoretically, full employment would encourage employers to pay workers higher wages. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. Despite a 4% unemployment rate, pay growth continues to slow.
Still, having a job that pays poorly is better than not having a job at all. Manual labourers who see machines taking their jobs are right to complain that they have fewer opportunities. If they could keep their low-paying jobs, at least they could afford to feed their families and feel the respect that comes from employment.
Arguing in favour of human labourers, though, may not have much of an effect on employment conditions. Technology will continue to improve and make workers obsolete. As long as businesses can save money and boost productivity by using machines, some people will get left behind in the modern economy.
As machines take more jobs, people will feel increased economic anxiety. The negative effects, however, may only last a short time while workers learn new skills that can help them find more specific jobs. If the government and employers can work together to re-educate manual labourers, perhaps everyone can benefit from the rise of digital technology.
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