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The Subtle Ways Technology is Eliminating Jobs

Back in January, on a trip from New Hampshire to New Jersey, I saw graphic evidence of how technology is eliminating jobs. The toll booths that were once a fixture on the Massachusetts Turnpike and the New York State Thruway are all gone. They’ve been replaced by scanners that read your license plate, then send you a bill for the toll by mail.

This was a particularly shocking realization. While it’s true that technology is eliminating jobs relentlessly, there are certain jobs that I always thought to be protected. Toll collectors were one of those jobs. You are working for the state, with all the benefits that that entails. And after all, highway tolls are taxes, and those never disappear. But apparently, even toll collector jobs are no longer safe. That’s because the state has figured out how to collect their highway taxes with far fewer people.

We can reasonably conclude that if jobs like toll collectors are disappearing, then no job anywhere is safe. It’s just a question of time before the technological tidal wave catches up with whatever job you’re working in.

In fact, the technology that is replacing people in jobs has become so common that we hardly notice it anymore. Consider the many ways that this is playing out in plain sight.

Self-service: Shifting Work to the Customer

One of the ways that businesses have come up with to eliminate jobs is by shifting more of each business transaction over to the customer. This helps to explain why stress levels are going up, while free time is going down. We really are busier than ever, since we’re now doing for ourselves what vendors once did for us.

These are the more obvious ways that this is happening:

  • ATMs are reducing the need for human bank tellers
  • Self-service gas stations are eliminating pump jockeys
  • Self-check out lines at grocery and retail stores are eliminating front end staff jobs
  • Self-serve drinking fountains are reducing the need for counter staff in fast food restaurants (and according to reports that I’ve read, this is only the beginning)
  • An oldie-but-goody: electronic answering services have long since replaced live operators (it’s now up to the customer to figure out how to reach someone, by navigating the phone mail labyrinth, rather than being helped by a live person)
The Subtle Ways Technology is Eliminating Jobs
The Subtle Ways Technology is Eliminating Jobs

In each situation, a service that was once performed by real people, is now being shifted over to the consumer via technology. In the process, we as customers are working harder than ever to use various services, while the jobs of the people who once provided those services are fast disappearing.

Pay Online/Paperless Billing/Print Your Own Documents

This is really another example of companies shifting responsibility over to customers. Companies once mailed bills and other correspondence to their customers. Those functions generated a considerable number of jobs. But in the Internet age, all of that has now been shifted over to the customer. The company only needs to send out email notifications of both invoices and important documents.

This not only eliminates jobs, but it also saves companies money on paper and printing costs, as well as postage. It’s a bonanza for the companies, but a burden for the customer.

For example, if a customer now wants a copy of a document, she has to print it herself. That means that she – the customer – must now bear the expense of paper and printing. And since everything is now “online”, the customer is now routinely directed to go to the company website, no matter what the need is.

There’s also the fact that by billing and collecting revenues online, the whole system becomes electronic, thus eliminating hundreds of thousands of jobs across the economy. The company’s revenue collection process becomes completely digitalized, which makes the entire process automatic. Yes, it’s convenient for the customer in some instances, but the real advantage – especially financial – goes entirely to the company. The most that the customer saves is postage to mail in bill payments. But the company saves money on postage mailing out the bills, as well as printing costs, labor costs, and the need for office space for employees in the collection process.

This is a happy marriage of technology and convenience that primarily benefits companies. We should expect to see more of this. Any time a company can shift the work burden over to the customer, the company will save money and cut out more jobs.

Robots Gutting Manufacturing Jobs

Last year, the Chicago Tribune reported that there are 7 million fewer manufacturing jobs since 1979, but manufacturing revenues have more than doubled. While we tend to think of robotics as more of a 21st Century development, in fact rudimentary robots have been employed since at least the 1970s. As they become increasingly sophisticated, they can perform even the most complicated tasks, further reducing the need for human labor.

This points to a frightening development: employers have found ways grow their business with fewer employees. This is a win for companies and for corporate profits, but it’s damning to the American worker.

It won’t stop with manufacturing jobs either. As robots, and increasingly artificial intelligence, become more advanced, they are increasingly expected to replace white collar jobs, such as people working in medicine and accounting. In fact, I’ve already seen it happen in accounting, as highly efficient tax preparation software packages are used to prepare increasingly complicated tax returns by the taxpayers themselves. Meanwhile, accounting software packages, like QuickBooks, reduces the number of bookkeepers and other clerical jobs.

There’s even a name for the process of technology replacing people: The Fourth Industrial Revolution. But where previous iterations of the Industrial Revolution increased the number of jobs, it seems that the technological revolution is specifically for the purpose of eliminating jobs. It’s all driven by profits, and profits increase when major expenses, like payroll, get chopped.

So while you might be cheering on ever higher stock prices, just remember that they’re largely driven by higher profits. And higher profits may be coming at the expense of your job, at least eventually. Unfortunately, that’s the whole point of it.

Subtle Machinery that does the Work of Multiple People

There’s a lot of older or less spectacular technology that’s been cutting into the job base for decades. For example, while walking at the local mall early one morning (which I do on winter days when it’s too cold or snowy to walk outside) I watched as the floors were being “mopped”. It wasn’t a staff of cleaners with mops doing the job. No, they’ve long since been replaced. Instead it was one guy driving what looked like a miniature Zamboni machine, that did everything a human could do in the fine art of mopping, but it did it faster. That one machine probably replaced at least ten jobs.

But there are examples of this all around. Think of the jobs that have been replaced by wide, self-propelled lawnmowers, leaf blowers, snow plows and snow blowers. Where once these jobs were performed by large groups of workers with shovels, rakes or hand pushed lawn mowers, they’re now performed by a very small number of equipment operators.

Technology is Eliminating Jobs – Where Will it All End?

That’s sort of the whole point – it looks to be that the whole shift is just getting started. For example, of late, there’s been a lot of news about self-driving cars, which has the potential to eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and maybe millions. Yet while it rolls forward, most Americans seem oblivious to the depth of the problems it’s causing, or more important, of the source of the disturbance.

Most Americans continue to cling to politically popular narratives that identify the source of the loss of jobs as the offshoring of jobs, unchecked immigration and a lack of education or training. Nothing could be further from the truth, so our public debates are essentially meaningless. This largely explains why the problem is getting worse and seems to increasingly defy solution.

We can’t keep pretending that this isn’t really happening, or that it won’t affect us. If you’re at least ten years from retirement, you most likely will be affected by the jobless trend, if only in unexpected ways. And if you’re close to retirement or already there, you may not be immune. Should you need to get a job to supplement your retirement income, you may find few jobs available. Rest assured that the next recession will put the whole process in fast forward as companies accelerate job eliminations to survive.

It’s also important to realize that pensions are funded largely by workers. As the number of workers relative to retirees decrease, the viability of pensions will become increasingly fragile. This could ultimately lead to pension defaults, particular state and municipal pensions. And then there’s the effect it’s having on Social Security, but let’s not step into that hornets nest here.

My purpose with this post isn’t to depress you, but to frame the extent and gravity of what we’re all up against. In my next post, as well as in future posts, I’ll offer suggestions on career options that are unlikely to be replaced by technology.

Do you see evidence of this happening? Or do you see a different scenario playing out?

( Photo by Clotee Pridgen Allochuku )

14 Responses to The Subtle Ways Technology is Eliminating Jobs

  1. Hi John – I’ve read about UBI, but I don’t think it will work. First of all, there’s no way we’ll be able to afford to pass out money to people on a large scale, not without triggering a devastating inflation. Second, people need real work to do, otherwise the societal breakdown we’re already experiencing will accelerate. As the saying goes, “idle hands are the Devil’s tools”. Work isn’t just about earning money and fitting in, it’s about having a meaningful purpose and making a contribution.

  2. That machine you saw mopping the floor doesn’t really clean the floors well especially if the that person using it is like the maintenance guy we had at my last company. (He was suppose to clean for 8 hours but did it in 3 as he slept the rest of the time) That machine also doesn’t clean bathrooms, walls, sinks, etc. Plus the water inside it has to be changed multiple times not use the same water for all floors. That’s one technology, I totally don’t approve of, even the Roomba for homes doesn’t clean well.
    As for online banking compared to banking at bank, certain things are better but you have to realize that every transaction is not processed 24/7 but only within business hours and it helps to have access to account. I do both online banking (process payments for payments for the month with bill pay and transferred money to son via Pop money, all with no fees) BUT I do need access to the bank to get rent payment as I want a guaranteed payment to landlord and they actually prefer cash, plus I get checks from another bank which don’t come as an electronic transfer and don’t read at ATM, plus I purchase quarters in rolls and other services. What I don’t see the need for at the banks is all those offices where the person is seated behind the desk with no interaction with customers. Not everything can be done online, or at ATM or by phone, especially if you don’t want to pay excess fees for the use.
    As for any of those other jobs being changed over to technology, e.g. order taking podiums with payment, machines putting things away. Just remember what happens when the Robots take over.
    But who is supposed to support everyone not working, I don’t plan to so new jobs have to be created.

  3. Hi Maria – I agree that certain forms of automation are customer-friendly, but we also have to remember that our convenience isn’t the reason those services were put in place. They only come to be if the company saves money by the implementation. That almost always means jobs will be lost. When every other expense has either already been cut, or can’t be cut (insurance, taxes, etc.), the only major expense that can be reduced is payroll. That’s what the Fourth Industrial Revolution is about, replacing human labor with machines.

    We heard about this for decades in the past, but it never happened – until now. And as is usually the case, problems that take a long time to develop come on fast once they get out of the gate. The change in just 15 years has been stunning. In the 80s and 90s there were good jobs all over the place. Now it’s like panning for gold.

  4. You gave the example of taxes. I use H&R Bloch software for my taxes where I just plug in my various numbers and voila! I file my Feds online, however, I still sent VA state in the mail. Why? VA used to be free e-file and/or telefile, but they eliminated telefile and have hiked the e-file first from free to $2.00 to $14.00 to now $19.00! Why? Because some crook in the VA GENERAL ASSES ( as the General Assembly is known in VA) decided his buddy who owned a tax service needed the revenue. As is normal in VA, nobody did nuttin’ about nuttin’ about this problem.
    My former job was not in danger from technology but the jobs of many of the people in my unit will be in jeopardy if and when the new computer system ever gets running. VA is kind of assbackwards re: technology. By the time a system is built and tested and goes live,it is already obsolete. Someone in the tech business is hauling in cash on that. I don’t know if you saw anything about the VA SNAP debacle but that is an example of the problem. The new, now obsolete, system went live too early and miscalculated SNAP Funds and now Aunt VA owes the Feds over $7,000,000.00! It is not widely known that the problem came mostly from the computer program. But I know a person who worked on the project and was let go before it went live, This person told me they replaced the coders and project managers so often that nothing much got done of time and they ended up rushing through the project to satisfy the higher ups. This person warned that there would be massive errors and that it was even vulnerable to fraud. DUH? Ya think, maybe? Here’s a link to the article: https://tinyurl.com/my7zeje

  5. Hi Mary – I went through a similar computer experience with a large bank’s mortgage department. They hired a group of 30 independent contractors to design a soup-to-nuts system that would accommodate all mortgage processes from prequalification to loan servicing. Basically, they asked that it do the impossible. It was cobbled together by the different contractors, and it ended up being a fully disjointed system, so much so that it frequently couldn’t get started, and more frequently froze up and shut down. It was out of commission about one-third of a typical work day. One day I was talking with one of the techs and she explained why the system was so dysfunctional. She explained how the system came to be, and that the techs knew that it was a seriously flawed system. But she added that the company spent millions so they could have a fully unique and in-house system (even though there were perfectly good off-the-shelf programs that worked flawlessly), and because of that investment, we were stuck with what we have.

    I suppose we should be thankful for dysfunction. It’s the reason why many humans still have jobs! That stupid company was losing money on payroll every day they were open for business because hundreds of employees where tied down working around the system to maintain the appearance that it worked. The system was ironically named MAL, which we on the staff expanded to “Malfunction”. I even made mention of that at a management meeting and got unified snickers. Big organizations make big mistakes, then they’re reluctant to fix them. Only the Good Lord knows how many monetary mistakes the system made and how much the corporate bozos lost on it. But since it’s not their money personally, they really don’t care. Sad, even tragic.

  6. The call for higher minimum wage is eliminating the need for many people who are entry level personnel. Self ordering kiosks at fast food places are replacing workers who don’t have the skills yet for a higher paying job. So all those people marching for higher min. wage might soon find themselves with no wage. Checkers at grocery stores are replaced by self-check lanes. Too many people don’t think ahead to the potential unexpected consequences.

  7. Ironic, isn’t it Kathy, that the protesters are protesting themselves right out of their jobs. It goes to show the lack of real education (like economics and financial relationships). People with no clue can be persuaded to march for what they can be convinced is right, even though reality is heading in another direction.

    I’m sorry to say that my wife and I just got back from the grocery store and used a self-service check out. But there were only two registers open (on a Friday night no less) and the lines were 15-20 people deep. We only had three items.

    Now that the technology is in place, employers are scheduling fewer people because they can. So what if we have to wait in line longer, or check out and bag ourselves. I wonder how many people realize how bad this arrangement is for us as customers, let alone as potential employees.

  8. Kevin,

    Very timely article with the underlying message…..you need to take responsibility for your future..no one else will

    I agree technology will only continue to replace human performed tasks/services. Keep plugging away at the message.

    Oddly..just a few days ago NBC/WSJ published poll results :
    57% of the public saying that the government should do more to solve problems and meet the needs of Americans. Almost double what was recorded in the 90’s.

    I can only imagine how disappointed these people will be. Nothing is sacred,especially public/private sector pensions.

    Politicians(gov./Elite) only are interested in staying in power…period. They aren’t covering anyone’s back side.

    Thanks,
    Judge

  9. Hi Judge – I think we’re reaping what we’ve sown for the past few decades, always kicking the problem can down the road for the next cohort to deal with. Somehow they’re getting away with that “strategy” but as they do the problems multiply. We’re all going to get a rude awakening if we think we’ll be able to continue to rely on jobs and pensions much longer.

    I think part of the problem is “normalcy bias”. People always assume that the future will be more or less like the past or the present. But from time to time life throws us a big picture curve ball and then the whole game changes, including all of the assumptions. We’re ripe for that outcome right now, much more so than most of us believe. It’s hard to imagine that we can continue as we have, always putting more tape and glue on the problems. It’s become increasingly clear that the political leadership is completely out of touch with the citizenry. It will all work out, one way or another, but not the way people think that it will.

  10. I’ve totally noticed this and have wondered if this is a good or bad thing. A lot of jobs that weren’t around years ago are now around today (bloggers, virtual assistants, etc.) and it makes me wonder if there are fewer errors now that a lot of jobs are moving over to technology and “robots”.

  11. Hi Alexis – That’s true about the jobs that have been created by the internet, and I’m certainly one of those. But I seriously doubt we’re getting fewer errors. A couple of years ago when we moved from GA to NH, I paid my first NH Comcast bill. Instead of crediting the payment to my NH Comcast account they instead credited the payment to my GA Comcast account, which had already been fully paid. The payment went to GA because it is based on your cell phone number, and not on your physical location. It took nearly 3 months to get this straightened out, and we got several threatening notices from NH Comcast along the way.

    You’d think the company could just switch the payment from GA to NH with a keystroke, but it wasn’t that easy. Someone from the regional Comcast president’s office had to intervene to correct the problem. One problem with technology is when it’s considered to be unassailable, even in the face of logic. There are other problems with technology as well. While I continue to be amazed at what technology can do, I’m nonetheless well aware of its limitations. As a blogger, I see it more times than I care to admit. Systems aren’t perfect and they never will be. But that won’t stop some people from believing they are, and that by itself is part of the problem.

  12. Anybody that has ever used Spell Check can see the difficulties right there. Overtype is another example. As IT people say the tech is only as good as the geeks who created it and the ‘wetware’ or less politely, the ‘idiotware’ that uses it.
    In my experience people are making just as many, if not more, mistakes than before. They are time crunched, stressed and not particularly careful and assume that the tech will correct itself. NOT TRUE!
    And if some of the posts on some sites are any indication, they are far less educated and thoughtful.

  13. Hi Mary – The term in IT is “garbage in, garbage out”, or GIGO. The system will only work as well as what’s fed into it. Since basic human nature never changes (we all make mistakes) that problem will never be remedied, no matter how sophisticated the technology will be. As to us making more mistakes, there are two factors at play here:

    1) We’re required to do more than ever as far as detail and customer-related responsibilities, to say nothing of work responsibilities, and
    2) The precision that computers demand is almost certainly beyond human capability

    This is another example of how technology has actually complicated life, even though it has made certain activities easier. I think it all comes down to the saying “there’s no free lunch”. If you add here, you’re taking away from there.

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