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 They’ve been replaced by scanners that read your license plate, then send you a bill for the toll by mail.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)
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?