Does technology cause unemployment?

The Washington Post published a piece over the weekend on the complex connection between technology and unemployment. It lays out the ways that technology improves working conditions and the long, disruptive lags that sometimes occur in employment. The sum of it:

Even with the right policies, these social changes can take time to work out. So while new inventions can come into use relatively quickly, it may take decades of slow learning and occupational changes before the benefits of major new technologies are shared by large numbers of ordinary workers.

Technology does not breed unemployment. It breeds disruption. Those who can adapt generally thrive as technological advances accelerate.

Keynes theorized that technology would bring a different kind of “unemployment.” He speculated that enhanced productivity could produce a 15-hour standard work week. Keynes didn’t bank on the additional opportunities for consumption produced by all the wealth of the industrial age. Those additional consumption options may be driving up to keep work hours high, but for how long?

From Marketplace, Is the 15-hour work week closer than we think?

Chris Ladd is a Texan living in the Chicago area. He has been involved in grassroots Republican politics for most of his life. He was a Republican precinct committeeman in suburban Chicago until he resigned from the party and his position after the 2016 Republican Convention. He can be reached at gopliferchicago at gmail dot com.

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25 comments on “Does technology cause unemployment?
  1. flypusher says:

    “But if your job is something you love or would do anyway, you’re probably okay not working a 15-hour work week.”

    Indeed. I was getting very bored on Friday when I was iced out. I went into work this afternoon despite the campus being closed, because I wanted to see the results of my experiment.

    15 hrs a week would never work for science- there too much that needs to be done!

  2. DanMan says:

    man there’s no telling what I could accomplish if I dedicated myself to working up to 15 hours per week…

  3. DFC says:

    Good grief…the answers here suggest a very limited and personal perspective on this question. Yes, of course technology causes unemployment. It eliminates entire species of jobs–always has–and it will do so at with increasing speed. It’s wiped out numerous types of manual labor, and now it’s eliminating aspects, and indeed whole types of, so-called “knowledge” labor.

    • Tuttabella says:

      True, and we can start by discussing the Industrial Revolution, but Mr. Lifer quickly went from talking about job loss due to technology to: “Keynes theorized that technology would bring a different kind of “unemployment.” He speculated that enhanced productivity could produce a 15-hour standard work week,” and that’s what we early birds chose to focus on.

      • DFC says:

        Perhaps the more challenging version of the question would be, “Does technology cause reduced population gnrowth?”

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        Nope. *Education* causes reduced population growth, as demonstrated by the demographic changes in African countries which have encouraged girls to attend school.

        *Industrialization* (which, to be fair, includes technology) also reduces population growth: lots of kids are a boon to a farming family, and possibly to one involved in small-scale handicrafts, but not to the typical middle-class family in a modern industrialized democracy. Add in the ever-elongating artificial adolescence created by our economy’s educational needs, and you defer most middle-class families from starting until late, if ever.

        Of course, Keynes’ 15-hour work week assumes that employers are willing to pass on the benefits of increasing productivity to their workers rather than keeping them for themselves. And our economic trajectory since the 1970s seems to strongly dispel that notion. Will Labor be able to muster as strong an outpouring of support for a 30-hour week as they did for the 40-hour week a couple of generations ago? Alas, probably not.

  4. objv says:

    Wasn’t technology supposed to come up with a pill that would enable us to eat as many jelly doughnuts as we like without getting fat?

    Lifer, a 15 hour work week sounds great, but how do you propose getting companies to let workers work less than two days a week and still pay them for five?

    I realize that being a contract worker or being self-employed is one solution, and many people who have family commitments find this works well for them, but often the people that are their own boss work more hours than traditional employees.

    As you all know, I’m a deadbeat who doesn’t work, but at my husband’s place of seems that while technology has eliminated many jobs – such as office assistants – employees are expected to work just as many hours and accomplish more. There is more flexibility as far as the work schedule is concerned, but an employee who doesn’t put in the hours and doesn’t accomplish yearly goals will find themselves being cut when layoffs occur.

    Lifer, I think we might have to pass on the jelly doughnut for now.

    • Owl of Bellaire says:

      If we look at the first graph on this page…

      …then, had wages kept up with productivity increases, companies should today be paying workers about twice what they did in 1980 — or, we might consider, pay two workers, each doing half the job, the same amount as they made in 1980.

      Of course, corporate big-wigs LOVE having a constant level of structural unemployment, since it throws bargaining power to them rather than to the job applicants. If our economy were running correctly, then we’d have near-full employment and wages would rise about as fast as productivity.

      • CaptSternn says:

        You mean full employment and a strong econpmy like we had when republicans were running things up until January 2007? Imagine that. Guess we should put republicans back in charge of things. Or, if you like things the way they have been for the past seven years and want more of it, vote for democrats.

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        Sternn, learn what “full employment” means.

      • Turtles Run says:

        I love the contrast between cappy’s post and the one made by Owl. Owl makes a statement on the conditions driving wages, employment, and productivity. The statements also are supported by a professional journal publications. Owl does not assign blame or give credit to any one group for the events that have occurred in the past 30+ years in the labor market.

        Cappy steps in tosses in the same unthinking rhetoric about this is the fault of Democrats and (like a good party man) suggests if we would just vote Republican then the economy would be A-OK.

        This is the perfect example of today’s modern political debate encapsulated for us here. On one hand moderates and liberals trying to debate policy using collaborating data and persuasive arguments and on the other side the tea party dominated attacks that are histrionic and over the top.

      • CaptSternn says:

        Full employment is when the unemployment rate is around 4% to 5%. It was 4.6% when democrats gained control.

        Turtles, that’s rich coming from the side of the aisle that is still blaming Bush43 and republicans in general for the past seven years. Policies and legislation coming from D.C. can either harm the economy through to much regulation, forcing higher wages and higher costs of doing business, or it can get out of the way and allow the private sector to thrive. It is no secret as to which party is better known for allowing the private sector to thrive and which seeks ever more and more control and oppression of the private sector.

  5. Tuttabella says:

    Even though I’m an aspiring Luddite, I think I would be the perfect candidate to benefit from the new technology and the ability to work from home. I’ve worked for the same small firm for 25 years, and I’ve gotten used to coming and going as I please, being my own boss, and were I suddenly to become unemployed, I’d have a lot of trouble getting used to having to answer to someone, to have to learn the office politics of a new work environment. I see myself working from home, as a consultant, or freelance, and it’s thanks to technology that I’d be able to do that.

  6. Tuttabella says:

    Instead of a 15-hour reduced workweek, office workers now have a 24/7 expanded work LIFE, what with being constantly connected to email and texting. Yes, it’s convenient, but you have to actively seek out downtime. There’s now a fine line between work and personal life, with people actively involved in social media at work, and then engaging in work from home in the evenings.

    • Crogged says:

      I have seen far more evidence of your observation than of ‘shortened’ work weeks. The other things technology was supposed to bring–a ‘paperless office’, also didn’t happen.

    • CaptSternn says:

      Indeed, Tutt. As technology increases we are stuck on the “always on” mode. Besides, I don’t see how many jobs could be cut to 15 hours a week. People dealing with shipping are constantly on the go. Public safety is always there. Oil field jobs demand long hours, as do manufacturing jobs, service jobs, etc.. What kind of industry would only require 15 hours per week?

      Then again, with companies cutting hours, jobs and benefits due to new laws and policies, some people might be lucky to get even 15 hours a week. The companies could hire more people working part time to avoid the higher costs of full time employees.

    • objv says:

      I remember years ago when my husband got his first cell phone from work. The charm wore off quickly!

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