Not only did they have to invest in the schools, but those kids couldn’t work at their jobs. It also turned out to be one of the best investments the US made in the 20th century. It gave us the most skilled, the most flexible and the most productive workforce in the world. To see how well this worked, imagine taking the labor force of 1899 and bringing them into the present. Despite their strong backs and good characters, many of them would lack the basic literacy and numeracy skills to do all but the most mundane jobs. Many of them would be unemployable.
What this example highlights is the primacy of our institutions, most especially our schools, in allowing us to reap the harvest of our technological prosperity. It’s foolish to say there’s nothing to worry about. Clearly we can get this wrong.
If the US had not invested in its schools and in its skills a century ago with the high school movement, we would be a less prosperous, a less mobile and probably a lot less happy society. But it’s equally foolish to say that our fates are sealed. That’s not decided by the machines. It’s not even decided by the market. It’s decided by us and by our institutions.
Now, I started this talk with a paradox. Our machines increasingly do our work for us. Why doesn’t that make our labor superfluous, our skills redundant? Isn’t it obvious that the road to our economic and social hell is paved with our own great inventions?
History has repeatedly offered an answer to that paradox. The first part of the answer is that technology magnifies our leverage, increases the importance, the added value of our expertise, our judgment and our creativity. That’s the O-ring.
The second part of the answer is our endless inventiveness and bottomless desires means that we never get enough, never get enough. There’s always new work to do. Adjusting to the rapid pace of technological change creates real challenges, seen most clearly in our polarized labor market and the threat that it poses to economic mobility. Rising to this challenge is not automatic. It’s not costless. It’s not easy. But it is feasible. And here is some encouraging news.
Because of our amazing productivity, we’re rich. Of course we can afford to invest in ourselves and in our children as America did a hundred years ago with the high school movement. Arguably, we can’t afford not to.
Now, you may be thinking, Professor Autor has told us a heartwarming tale about the distant past, the recent past, maybe the present, but probably not the future. Because everybody knows that this time is different. Right? Is this time different? Of course this time is different.
Every time is different. On numerous occasions in the last 200 years, scholars and activists have raised the alarm that we are running out of work and making ourselves obsolete: for example, the Luddites in the early 1800s; US Secretary of Labor James Davis in the mid-1920s; Nobel Prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief in 1982; and of course, many scholars, pundits, technologists and media figures today.
These predictions strike me as arrogant. These self-proclaimed oracles are in effect saying, “If I can’t think of what people will do for work in the future, then you, me and our kids aren’t going to think of it either.” I don’t have the guts to take that bet against human ingenuity.
Look, I can’t tell you what people are going to do for work a hundred years from now. But the future doesn’t hinge on my imagination. If I were a farmer in Iowa in the year 1900, and an economist from the 21st century teleported down to my field and said, “Hey, guess what, farmer Autor, in the next hundred years, agricultural employment is going to fall from 40% of all jobs to 2% purely due to rising productivity.
What do you think the other 38% of workers are going to do?” I would not have said, “Oh, we got this. We’ll do app development, radiological medicine, yoga instruction, Bitmoji.” I wouldn’t have had a clue.
But I hope I would have had the wisdom to say, “Wow, a 95% reduction in farm employment with no shortage of food. That’s an amazing amount of progress. I hope that humanity finds something remarkable to do with all of that prosperity.” And by and large, I would say that it has.
Thank you very much.