“Automation Anxiety” and Other Fears (Pt. I)

“Automation Anxiety”
and Other Fears

(Pt. I)

“At the present time, thousands of jobs a week are disappearing in the wake of automation and other production efficiency techniques. Black and white, we will all be harmed unless something grand and imaginative is done.”

Martin Luther King Jr, 1965

The landscape of American businesses in the 1950s was met with the rise of Electronic Data Processing (EDP), which automated simple and regular tasks involving large amounts of data. Unsurprisingly, the change was met with mixed feelings as workers who managed branch-level paperwork suddenly found themselves transferred, demoted, or ultimately out of a job. Negative sentiments roamed the opinion spheres of the 1960s, as evident from the quotation above, taken from an interview with Martin Luther King Jr. What Martin Luther correctly identified was a collective fear felt by those in the workforce against the ever-evolving machines, and the loss of jobs and livelihoods that could occur if the market is left to spiral out on its own.

The Automation Jobless

In 1961, TIME published an article that revolved around “The Automation Jobless”, reflecting the level of concern across the American economy:

“What worries many job experts more is that automation may prevent the economy from creating enough new jobs… Many of the losses in factory jobs have been countered by an increase in the service industries or in office jobs. But automation is beginning to move in and eliminate office jobs too… In the past, new industries hired far more people than those they put out of business. But this is not true of many of today’s new industries… Today’s new industries have comparatively few jobs for the unskilled or semiskilled, just the class of workers whose jobs are being eliminated by automation.” (“The Automation Jobless”, TIME Magazine, Feb. 24 1961)

Headlines after TIME’s publication of “The Automation Jobless”

Despite the concerns, when President Lyndon B. Johnson empaneled the “Blue-Ribbon National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress” in 1964, the conclusion was that automation did not threaten employment. The commission observed that the general level of demand for goods and services remains the most important factor in assessing changes or damages to the job market, and as a result, it was stated that “Technology eliminates jobs, not work”.

Same Job, New Tasks

According to an article by David H. Autor, by the time the 20th century had arrived, the employment-to-population ratio had risen despite the increased use of machines and the number of women moving from their homes into the workforce. The past two centuries of automation and technologies, therefore, had not made humans obsolete. Autor ultimately argues that automation complements labor and raises outputs in ways that eventually lead to a higher demand for labor.

For instance, in a report conducted by Deloitte, it was found that 800,000 jobs were lost due to automation, but with the creation of 3.5 million new jobs, many of which required grander skill sets. As automation technologies make their way into the workforce, different sectors and industries will respond to an increase in efficiency in different ways, sometimes even benefitting workers.

Early Wells Fargo ATM cards; people using an ATM at
Central Northwestern National Bank in 1976.

(Wells Fargo Stories)

When the ATM was introduced in banks throughout the 1970s, the average number of tellers per branch dropped from about 20 to 13. However, thanks to the newly-reduced cost of operating a bank branch, ATMs ultimately helped increase the demand for tellers. While the number of tellers per branch had dropped by more than a third, the number of urban bank branches had risen by more than 40 percent between 1988 and 2004. This was also accomplished in part thanks to a wave of bank deregulation policies that allowed more branches to be built.

It is therefore a myth that automation will eventually take over all our jobs. History has proven itself capable of moving onwards in the face of rapid technological changes, and as automation technologies increase productivity and overall efficiency, society income will also benefit. While many tasks can be rendered irrelevant by technology, it is undeniable that the more important ones will still require the human mind. While robots can perform repetitive tasks with unparalleled speed and precision, without a survival instinct, they will always need the supervision and guidance of humans.

In Part II of this article, we will be moving on to take a closer look at the future of jobs; specifically, ones that could be replaced by automation, and the ones that could experience direct automation-driven growth.

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