Will There be a Market for Manual Labor?

July 8, 2011
What low-tech positions will still exist in another 10, 20 or 30 years?
Re: "First Up: Helping Manufacturing at the Start," May 2011

At its most basic level, technology is and has always been about making people more efficient. For example, thanks to the plow, a single farmer in ancient times could work more acreage than his forefathers. And today, thanks to GPS-enabled tractors and modern fertilizers (as well as genetically altered seeds), a single farmer can out-produce what it would have taken hundreds of workers to reap a few centuries ago. Likewise, ERP and other office computer systems have replaced multitudes of white-collar workers, robots in factories have been substituted for hundreds or thousands of blue-collar workers, and the list goes on.

Historically, of course, displaced workers have moved on to other venues -- the demographic trend in America in the 19th and 20th centuries of people moving from rural to urban areas is an example of that. But going forward, as robots replace factory workers, and lab technicians and more sophisticated software eliminate the need for more white-collar workers, where will the displaced go? In other words, what low-tech positions will still exist in another 10, 20 or 30 years?

When I bring up the notion of how technology keeps replacing workers and where those displaced workers will go in casual conversations with friends, the response is always along the lines of, "Well, there will be new and unthought-of work for people to do in the future -- just as 100 years ago nobody could imagine thousands of workers toiling in car-assembly plants (hmmm, maybe a poor exemplar choice there), the future will bring with it undreamed-of new occupations." But I question for how much longer this pat response will suffice.

The reason for my lack of confidence that the future will follow the trend of the past is that I sense that jobs of the future will require ever higher levels of intelligence and/or training. In the past, one could work in a multitude of positions without so much as a high school education -- from farmhands to factory workers, a healthy portion of the population was performing useful and valuable tasks for society at large without the need of formal training. However, it strikes me that 10 years from now the only jobs for which there will be demand may well require no less than doctoral degrees in one discipline or another -- given advancements in haptics, how long will it be until iRobot comes out with a Roomba that can pick strawberries? The point is, manual labor and low-skills-type jobs are going to become ever rarer, and ever more people will simply not be equipped to do work that is valued by society (as in, such that they get paid for it).

So while "The Next American Economy" might well lament the current state of our economy, it seems to me that in not too many decades the very advances we see and from which our jobs market suffers will be felt around the globe.

Then what?

Bob Fately
Vice President
Third Wave
Van Nuys, Calif.

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