Technology's threat to jobs is nothing new

At the recent CeBIT Australia conference, economist Andrew Charlton noted that concerns over new technologies and the potential impact on jobs is nothing new. Charlton was senior economic adviser to Kevin Rudd during his time as Australia’s prime minister.

Charlton noted that throughout history new technologies have often led to concerns about a potentially negative impact on jobs. He referred to Queen Elizabeth the first who apparently refused to grant patents for knitting machines that would put people out of work.

He also mentioned that US President John F Kennedy, in his inauguration address, claimed that the biggest challenge facing the USA was the loss of jobs to machines.

Despite these concerns, the economy has continued to produce new jobs. What has changed in recent decades is the type of jobs being impacted. In the 1950s, jobs in agriculture were impacted by technological change. In the 1980s and 1990s it was manufacturing jobs that were most affected. More recently, white collar jobs in the service sector are beginning to be impacted.

Charlton also suggests that the impact of technology on jobs is not accelerating. If it was, productivity would be rising strongly but recent data for developed economies shows this is not the case.

Tasks within jobs are also changing. Workers today are doing more interpersonal and creative tasks and fewer administrative and physical tasks. This should help to reduce workplace injuries and make jobs more enjoyable.

Assuming workers are transitioned successfully to the new jobs created and if the uptake of automation in Australia could be accelerated, Charlton estimates that the net present value of Australian GDP could benefit by $2.2 trillion.

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