Technology has always been a net job creator. So why do so many of us feel that the robots (or algorithms) are about to take our jobs? A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll of unemployed Americans ages 25 to 54 found that 35% believed that they’d been displaced by technology. It’s true that software can do more work that human beings used to do. But it’s also true that Silicon Valley hasn’t dealt particularly well with growing fears about tech-related job displacement, at least from a public relations standpoint.
The truth is that technology has long served as an easy target for employment alarmists–in no small part because innovators tend to tout new efficiencies and cost savings foremost. But as a recent Brookings Institution analysis put it, “Historically, technological progress has created winners and losers, but over the long run, [it] has tended to create more jobs than it has destroyed.”
If you look at the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society, that’s certainly true. From 1900 to 2000, the proportion of the workforce working on farms fell from 41% to 2%, yet agricultural output increased and farmers eventually found jobs in factories or, later, in cubicles. That’s not to say that periods of technological change aren’t fraught. There’s a reason the textile artisans who came to be known as Luddites started smashing knitting machines in 19th century England.
Nobody has started smashing their Laptops or iPads yet. But it is disturbing to see how unevenly the gains from the past 20 years of technological innovation have been shared. Many economists associate the middle class’s shrinking partly with the fact that technology is displacing people. Increasingly, there are jobs for Ph.D.s and hands-on laborers like, say, home health care aides, but more and more of what’s in between can be automated. Self-driving cars are coming for chauffeurs; drones threaten delivery drivers. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper co-written by economist Jeffrey Sachs hypothesized that software developers themselves might someday be replaced by the very programs they create.
There is a strong counterargument that the jobs and value technology create just aren’t being counted properly. “GDP was designed to measure the output of 20th century industrial nation-states making stuff, not a 21st century economy generating bytes and ideas,” says Zachary Karabell, whose book The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World examines what our current system does and doesn’t tally.
Academics like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Erik Brynjolfsson, who believes we vastly underestimate the productivity created by the “free goods of the Internet,” would agree, as would Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky. His company may have 30 million users and only 1,600 employees, but Chesky says it creates many more “21st century jobs” by helping generate extra income for hosts who monetize their homes and for local businesses and such service providers as cleaners who benefit from the influx of vacationers. For New York City alone, Chesky puts the value of that additional income at $768 million annually, which the company claims supports 6,600 jobs. Of course, those are “jobs” without the health care, 401(k) or other benefits that a traditional position might provide.
Which underscores a disturbing truth about the new economy: it’s all on you. People who are smart, well educated and entrepreneurial may well do better in this paradigm. But what about those who aren’t as well positioned or at least need help in tooling up?
The obvious answer is for government to provide more help through a reformed educational system, workforce training and a social safety net to pick up slack. That’s what I consistently hear tech titans and other CEOs calling for. The hitch is that they are calling for it even as they pay a smaller share of the tax pie to fund it all. (About a third of all the corporate profit sitting in overseas bank accounts is from technology-driven firms.) Certainly some companies are making big private contributions to educational reform; Google, Microsoft and IBM are prime examples. But more will be needed.
For now, the power divide between the public and private sectors is only growing. The public sector holds most of the world’s debt, as well as responsibility for the welfare of those who are being “disrupted.” Big Tech has the profits but could stand to do some creative thinking about how better to share–or at least account for–the rewards of innovation. Otherwise it risks breeding a whole new generation of Luddites.
This appears in the March 16, 2015 issue of TIME.