Jobs and Automation: Anxiety is Historic

A new report predicts that by 2030, as many as 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide to automation. The study, compiled by the McKinsey Global Institute, says that advances in AI and robotics will have a drastic effect on everyday working lives, comparable to the shift away from agricultural societies during the Industrial Revolution. In the US alone, between 39 and 73 million jobs stand to be automated — making up around a third of the total workforce.

But, the report also states that as in the past, technology will not be a purely destructive force. New jobs will be created; existing roles will be redefined; and workers will have the opportunity to switch careers. The challenge particular to this generation, say the authors, is managing the transition. Income inequality is likely to grow, possibly leading to political instability; and the individuals who need to retrain for new careers won’t be the young, but middle-aged professionals.

The First paragraph jump-starts anxiety. Second paragraph is supposed to ease it with words about “new jobs will be created.” But it doesn’t when its mentions growing income inequality, political instability, and retraining middle-aged professionals.

The fact is–and it is a fact that I document below in cartoons–fear of job loss to new machine has been part of American and global culture for the past century.

The larger question of preparing children and youth for future jobs–one of at least four historic purposes of U.S. public schooling– becomes apparent in light of predictions of job loss (“between 39 and 73 million jobs stand to be automated” by 2030). When the primary focus of school reform for the past four decades has been preparing the next generation for the workplace, such predictions question whether job preparation should be the purpose of tax-supported public schools. So the anxiety over job loss to new machines spills over what curriculum to teach the young, what forms of instruction, and how best to organize schooling. Questions rise anew as to exactly what is the purpose of public schools in a democracy.

Put the point about schooling being connected to fears of unemployment and job losses to the back of your mind, however, as I show cartoons and newspaper headlines that capture the persistent anxieties of Americans over new machines replacing workers.

The first is a drawing of British workers in the 1830s destroying machines that would end their expertise in weaving and finishing textiles and replace them thereby impoverishing their families.



Nearly a century ago, this headline appeared in the New York Times.



And during the Great Depression.






And when “talkies” replaced silent movies in the 1920s and 1930s, musicians who played during the silent films and were fired, had their say.




And beginning in the 1950s, automation entered industry after industry.






And Europe was not spared as this cartoon in Germany illustrates.







Fear of job loss to machines has a long history as these cartoons show. That history of automation replacing humans (from horse-and-buggy cabs to elevator operators to bank tellers to switchboard operators at telephone companies) has been in the foreground of what gives Americans and Europeans the willies for over a century. And those societal anxieties eventually lead to uneasiness over what schools are doing that can prepare the next generation for an ever-changing workplace. Enter the next school reform cycle.









Filed under school reform policies

2 responses to “Jobs and Automation: Anxiety is Historic

  1. bluecat57

    None of the terms are defined and the numbers are meaningless. What is a job? But more importantly, what is loss? Is that NET or Gross? They are talking about a 120-month timeframe. In the US, less than 1 million a month. Can they build that many robots or install that much software? And in 2030 when the predictions haven’t come true, who do we get to ridicule?

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