Technology is a Double Edged Sword

Robot Teacher

There's a recent article on Business Insider on how retail stores are closing and they predict it could affect 6 to 7 million workers.

And from all of the headlines (1, 2, 3, & 4) it seems inevitable that many retail locations are going to close. And this will mean the end of some jobs. But it isn't without hope.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

In 1979 the first spreadsheet software was created. It was called VisiCalc and it worked on the Apple II.

Now spreadsheets existed; they were just created manually (read: by hand). So when the owner of the company asks you a question like: “What happens to our profit if we increase production by 5%?” you would have to take the spreadsheet back into your office. Erase all of the existing data. And rewrite all of the affected cells. This could take the whole day. Or if the spreadsheet was especially big it could take multiple days.

After VisiCalc came out it took seconds. You would think this meant the end of accountants right? But it didn't.

Since 1980 (a year after the software came out) 400,000 bookkeeping and accounting clerk jobs disappeared. But 600,000 accounting jobs (different than accounting clerks) appeared (source).

So even though the costs of accounting dropped dramatically the jobs didn't disappear as they should have. That's because as the price fell people wanted more of that product. They wanted to ask more questions:

  • What if we decrease production by 5%?
  • What if we give everyone a 5% raise? What about 6%?
  • What if we could increase the efficiency of our production staff by 10%?
  • What if the whole company took off the week of Christmas?

Now it took just seconds. So businesses were able to ask more questions and make better decisions.

Old jobs were eliminated. And new jobs (where people had to use computers) were created.

Back to the Present

So new technology doesn't mean jobs die. It means some jobs die and new ones get created.

As Americans continue to buy more online it will mean the end of some retail jobs. But as we lose those jobs new jobs are created.

Lowe's has this robot they're testing in stores. And while it will eliminate a few retail jobs it could mean more jobs in manufacturing (robots) and in software (for robots).

And there are new jobs in logistics to handle all of the online purchases.

Higher Skilled Jobs

As we eliminate retail jobs which are low skill jobs and replace them with robot manufacturer & software developers which are high skill jobs. It becomes pretty clear that we need to keep growing and educating ourselves.

For the average retail worker (read: minimum wage) this can be expensive. And I worry about the growing inequality between classes. Those who can afford to learn new skills will succeed and those without will likely desperately look for those last retail jobs.

These are societal issues that we'll have to figure out. But for right now as retail jobs are lost start looking to learn new skills. Learn skills that let you create. Things like:

  • Writing
  • Software development
  • Marketing
  • Product development

These are skills we'll need for a long time. They might be automated (or partially automated) someday. But in the meantime they let you create things and earn a solid income. The key is see the changing landscape, educate yourself, and move into a higher skill profession.

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