Lamenting Increased Productivity

I recently read a post about Replacing Middle Management with APIs. The author concludes:

As the software layer gets thicker, the gap between Below the API jobs and Above the API jobs widens. And economic incentives will push Above the API engineers to automate the jobs Below the API: self-driving cars and drone delivery are certainly on the way. The gap in training and social groups above and below could mean that new automation technology causes sudden, large-scale unemployment and a surge in demand for subsidized training. I hope we’re ready.

It seems to be a slightly new spin on the age-old worry of jobs being lost to technology and/or productivity increases. This never really seems to play out the way we fear because we try to extrapolate the present conditions into the future, when, in reality, we never predict the future well.

The future will always be different than we envision, and we can’t predict where the next surge of new jobs will be. What we can know is that increases in productivity raise the standard of living for everyone. This means we have a better life for less money, which frees us up to create new things and fix new problems that couldn’t have been done before the prior productivity gains. It allows entrepreneurs (likely many of them from the pool of people who lose their “below the API” level jobs) to reach for the next higher-order problem that presents itself. These types of innovations can’t be predicted, and they also can’t be solved until we lift ourselves up to a level where it makes sense to think about those next problems.

Jobs That Don’t Exist Anymore

We can see countless examples of this in the past.  In fact, the SF Chronicle, recently had a piece on this very topic, titled 16 jobs that don’t exist anymore.  Some of the jobs it mentions:

Now, are we lamenting the loss of any of those jobs?  Do we think society would be better off today if we had to pay people to still do these things?  Those jobs listed above, and many others, probably constituted thousands, or tens of thousands of jobs, if not more. Did unemployment surge because we didn’t have to pay people to set bowling pins anymore? No, those people found other ways to be even more productive.

Sure, these changes may have produced hardship for some individuals for a time, as transitions, change, and disruptions can be messy things.  I’m all for helping people out (voluntarily) who hit a rough patch – that’s what friends and family are for, but in the bigger picture, these changes in job opportunity and availability are good things.  Change is inevitable, and hopefully the constant march of productivity gains is inevitable as well, because we all benefit from it.

What Will They Do?

The inevitable next question, is “What will they do”?  What will the taxi drivers do who are replaced by self-driving cars, or the UPS man who’s replaced by drones?  The answer is “I don’t know”.  And nobody else knows either.  But the beauty is that the preponderance of evidence throughout history tells us that these will be good changes.  It’s a wonderful thing when humanity finds ways to do things more efficiently.  We make better use of the resources we have, and we raise the standard of living of everyone in the process.What will those people do next?  Help solve problems that, before, we couldn’t even think of.  To me, that’s always an exciting prospect.What jobs of today will we look back on in 20 years and say, wow, we used to pay people to do that?