Will Digital Technology Destroy Jobs?

As digital technology advances, an intriguing question arises: Will it destroy jobs and ultimately lead to a net loss for society? So far, there’s no simple answer.

What is obvious is that there’s legitimate reason for concern. While new systems, devices and features often produce benefits and market gains—and fuel a competitive advantage for enterprises that connect the digital dots—the aggregate impact for society isn’t nearly as clear.

Two MIT Sloan School of Management professors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, have argued for the past several years that breathtaking advances in computer technology—from improved industrial robotics to automated translation services—have fueled the sluggish employment growth of the past decade. The men believe that the prospects for many types of jobs are bleak, as powerful new technologies rumble through fields as diverse as law, financial services, education, hospitality, manufacturing and medicine.

In fact, the professors argue that rapid technological change has destroyed jobs faster than it is creating them.

Meanwhile, Microsoft founder Bill Gates has stated that the demand for jobs—particularly service jobs and those with more basic skill —will shrink markedly over the next couple of decades.

Taking Action to Prevent Massive Job Losses

The concept is gaining traction. In September, the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) World IT Forum (WITFOR) 2016 closed with calls for developing nations to take decisive action to prevent massive job losses as a result of digital disruption.

The closing keynote speaker, Chrisanthi Avgerou, professor of information systems at the London School of Economics and Political Science, voiced strong concerns about technology leading to job loss. She pointed out that large segments of the population in developing countries are already unable to take advantage of digital technologies because of limited access or a lack of skills.

Avgerou also posited that digital development in advanced post-industrial countries is posing serious challenges for the developing world. Obviously, great inequality in countries around the world impacts businesses and economies and, at some point, could lead to global instability.

Among her suggestions include international regulations to delay or address the labor replacement effect of technology (essentially measures to protect jobs) and a focus on strengthening areas of job and income creation.

To some extent, this topic is politically charged and pits nations that embrace greater regulatory controls with those that take a more laissez faire attitude. Yet, many experts, including Gates, believe that changes to tax codes and policy are unavoidable.

One thing is clear: As we wade deeper into digital technology, individuals, nations and businesses must examine more thoroughly how technology impacts jobs—and the world. We cannot afford to blindly careen down a path of digital bliss.