These Stats Show What Technology Has Done for the Workforce in the Past 140 Years

Source: AP
Source: AP

Robot workers are poised to replace humans in a number of industries, from truck drivers to journalism to human resources. There's a good chance that, someday in the future, your particular skill set will become obsolete, your presence at your workplace dispensable. But up until this moment in history, technological innovation has actually done the opposite — created more jobs than it's destroyed.

A new report from consulting agency Deloitte examined British census data between 1871 and 2011. According to the Guardian, Deloitte found that technology, on the whole, has been a "great job-creating machine" that has opened opportunities left and right.

So far.

It's not the last 140 years we have to worry about. It's the next 140.

The economy has shifted away from physical labor toward "caring professions." One hundred years ago, the prognosis on manual labor wasn't very good either. The Guardian says that since 1871, there's been a 95% drop-off in agricultural-labor positions, with heavy losses in similar sectors like weaving, cleaning and mining.

But the key here hasn't been the losses so much as the gains, and which industries those gains apply to. In nursing and healthcare-assistant positions, there's been a 909% increase in jobs between 1992 and 2014.

During that same two-decade span, the Guardian reported, the economy has pivoted away from strictly physical labor toward jobs in care industries like teaching and community work. Even as there has been a 79% drop in weavers and textile workers, there's been a 580% increase in employment for teachers and educational support staff. It represents a shift away from an employment base that relies heavily on muscle, and toward jobs that provide for people's needs. For example, hairdressers and barbers are on the rise.

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Most futurists and thinkers in the realm of robot automation think that these jobs — not necessarily desk jobs, but work that involves emotional nuance and caring for others — will be the ones that survive the automated future.

The white-collar jobs that replaced manual labor are now the ones being threatened. Take the finance industry: The Guardian says that in the 140 years leading up to 2011, the number of accountants in the United Kingdom went from 9,832 to 215,678. In the years leading up to 2011, financial institutions flourished, and international banking expanded.

But automation is beginning to put those jobs on the backslide. Since 2011, we've seen a growth in high-frequency trading algorithms and software platforms that emulate or entirely replace accountants, bankers and personal finance platforms. For many of the services that well-trained financial professionals used to do, yes, we have an app for that now. (For reference, see another paper called "The Robots Are Coming," published by — you guessed it — Deloitte.)

It's not the last 140 years we have to worry about. It's the next 140.

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Jack Smith IV

Jack Smith IV is a senior writer covering technology and inequality. Send tips, comments and feedback to jack@mic.com.

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