Thomas Malthus was the original proponent of the notion that there will be no jobs and no food in the future — and he made this prediction all the way back in the late 1700’s.
However, his wasn’t a prophecy of intelligent robots stomping out the little guy, but instead a commentary on the impending economic juggernaut that was the machine age.
“The industrial revolution will automate all the jobs and nobody will have anything to do!” he said. And really, can you knock the man for his anxious foretelling?
Back in the 1700’s, farming was virtually the entire economy. If they calculated GDP, farming would have been like 90% of GDP. Our friend Thomas was just reading the writing on the wall. His only mistake was being epically, embarrassingly wrong.
The industrial revolution was the greatest job creation engine of all time.
It created jobs that were unimaginable only 30 years earlier — much in the same way that Web Designers, Growth Marketers, and Data Scientists, were all unimaginable occupations 30 years ago. In fact, so many people all over the world switched from farm work to industrial work that today, farming isn’t a factor in a developed nation’s GDP and is left out of unemployment statistics. It literally got written out of the books.
Time marches on though.
Now we are exiting the Industrial Revolution and teetering on the cusp of truly entering the Information Age, a brand new era powered by connectivity and this big group of little people you keep reading about called Millennials.
And with this new era, again, the naysayers have come out in droves warning us to be wary of these new machines that want all our jobs.
Now sure, self-driving cars will eliminate the taxi (and Uber) driver, and machine learning will take away software developer jobs. Robots will serve coffee, iPads will teach our children, and I’ll be able to use a tricorder instead of going to the doctor. These are the things we’ve been promised.
So nobody will have a job in the future, right?
Well, hang on.
Just as our farmer from the 1800’s couldn’t have imagined the factory that he’d be working at in the next decade, or how someone from the early 1900’s couldn’t have imagined how the auto and aviation industries would dramatically shrink the world, or even how someone from 2000 couldn’t have imagined the digital marketing jobs that exist today, we similarly can’t imagine the jobs that will exist in 25 or 50 years.
The Information Age will usher in more jobs than humanity has ever seen before. We just don’t know what they will be yet.
Keep in mind though, that these jobs will come in a cycle — as they have for centuries. First jobs will be lost, and then they will be replaced a few times over. The magnitude of this progression is dependent on how disruptive the technology is — and AI, robotics, machine learning — these things are going to be exceptionally disruptive.
So sure, in the short term we will witness tremendous pain. We already are to some extent, and it’s causing a great divide to open within our country, and around the world.
Just as a laid off coal miner in Pennsylvania or an unemployed auto worker in Detroit can’t move to Silicon Valley and fill the open engineering roles out here, unskilled labor in central Britain can’t move to fill the tech jobs in London.
What do these things (partially) lead to? One has orange hair and the other has made it way cheaper to travel to England.
So yes, there will be tremendous upheaval of the status quo as we transition away from jobs that have sustained many over the past century — and those people will need assistance, not just financially, but also emotionally. Furthermore, they will need a new education to bestow them with the skills required to be competitive in the new economy.
Nevertheless, in the long term — say 50 years from now — we will look back and see that the Information Age was not the harbinger of humanity’s gainfully-employed doom, but instead a revolution that went on to become the new most powerful job creation engine of all time.