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Could a Robot Actually Steal Your Job?

Blog Post | Adoption of Technology

Could a Robot Actually Steal Your Job?

Yesterday, The Guardian published a provocative piece titled, "Are Robots Going To Steal Your Job? Probably."

Yesterday, The Guardian published a provocative opinion piece titled, “Are Robots Going To Steal Your Job? Probably.” 

At first glance, the author’s pessimism would seem justified. From robotic gardeners and farmers to robotic pizza delivery services, it seems like every day robots make new forays into jobs traditionally done by humans. 

But pause to consider technology in historical perspective. Pessimism about new technologies is not new. In 1918, people decried automobiles for destroying the livery stable business. In the early 1800s, frustrated textile workers known as “Luddites” famously smashed apart mechanized looms. The Guardian author himself admits that his fears echo those of the Luddites: 

“This is not a new concern. Since at least as early as the time of the Luddites, in early 19th-century Britain, new technologies have caused fear about the inevitable changes they bring.”

The Luddites and livery stable proprietors were correct to realize that new machines would utterly change their industries, but they failed to appreciate the overall effects of new technologies on human wellbeing. 

Banning mechanized looms would have prevented everyone from enjoying cheaper clothing. Similarly, banning automobiles would have robbed everyone of enjoying modern transportation. 

It is certainly true that technological change makes some jobs obsolete, but it has also made humanity better off in many ways. Importantly, it has led to the creation of new jobs. 

In fact, technological progress tends to create more jobs than it destroys. The new jobs tend to be better, while the eliminated jobs tend to be difficult and dangerous. 

The debate over the precise ways in which robots will affect human employment, productivity, incomes, leisure time, and living standards rages on. Cato’s upcoming forum, “Will a Robot Take Your Job?” will tackle these questions and more. Please consider registering here.

Blog Post | Work-Related Injuries

The Tragic Origins of Father’s Day

High mortality rates killed many fathers and left others to raise their children alone.

Father’s Day is a joyful celebration, but its origins are a window to a darker past. Learn more about the holiday’s tragic history in this article by Chelsea Follett.

This article originally appeared on RealClearHistory.com

Few are familiar with the tragic origins of Father’s Day. Father’s Day was inspired by both a lethal workplace catastrophe and by a single father who raised six children after his wife’s untimely death.

In 1907, an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine resulted in the deaths of 361 men, 250 of whom were fathers. It was the deadliest mining disaster in U.S. history, and 1,000 children lost their fathers in the accident. To honor the lost miners, a local woman named Grace Golden Clayton arranged a “Father’s Day” tribute the following year on July 5th.

Workplace death was sadly common in that era: scholars estimate that in the United States around 61 workers per 100,000 employees died annually in work-related accidents during the early 20th century. In 2020, the most recent year for which there is data, that figure was 3.4 fatalities —  a 94 percent reduction. Progress in workplace safety is particularly good news for men. Holders of the 20 jobs with the highest occupational fatality rates, such as logging and steelworking, are over 90 percent male, and men account for more than 90 percent of workplace fatalities. While even one workplace death is too many, we can be thankful that, as workplace deaths have become rarer, far fewer children lose their fathers to disasters like the one that inspired the first Father’s Day.

A tragic, but rewarding life

While West Virginia may be the birthplace of Father’s Day, the event did not catch on until later; the annual Father’s Day tradition on the third Sunday in June that we know today was inspired by a devoted single father named William Jackson Smart.

William was born in 1842 in Arkansas. He had the unusual experience of fighting on both sides of the Civil War. Arkansas joined the Confederacy, but in 1863 William switched sides to fight for the Union. He was fortunate to survive: one in five Civil War soldiers met an untimely end. In 1865, the year the war ended, he married Elizabeth. She died at age 30 in 1878. Some sources report that the couple had five children, and that at least one died in infancy. What we do know is that William was left to care for three surviving children: an infant daughter, a five-year-old daughter, and a six-year-old son.

In those days, losing a spouse to premature death was a common affair. Data suggests that among white men in William’s birth cohort, nearly 5 percent were widowers during their 40s. Reflecting the higher male mortality during the Civil War, over 10 percent of women in that same demographic were widows in their 40s. Such statistics are not surprising, given how short the typical lifespan was during that era. As late as 1880, the average U.S. life expectancy was only 39 years; today that figure is more than 76 years.

After two years of single fatherhood, William remarried in 1880. His second wife was Ellen, a 29-year-old widow with three children of her own. William and Ellen added seven more children to their household (one of whom died in infancy), and moved their sprawling family from Arkansas to a farm in the Pacific Northwest.

Daughter honored twice widowed dad

William’s children from his first marriage and his stepchildren were grown when he became a widower for the second time. When Ellen died in 1898, William was left to raise their 16-year-old daughter Sonora and five sons: a 15-year-old12-year-old twins, a 10-year-old, and a 7-year-old. Sonora may have helped him take care of her younger brothers initially, but when she married the following year, William was left to raise the five boys on his own.

William rose to the challenge. Sonora said admiringly of her father: “This role he performed with courage and selflessness until we were all in homes of our own.”

Starting in 1909, as Mother’s Day — a holiday with its own tragic backstory — grew in popularity, Sonora worked to popularize a complementary Father’s Day to be celebrated around the date of her father’s birthday. She partnered with businesses, ranging from menswear manufacturers to greeting card trade groups, and spent decades lobbying for the holiday’s official recognition — which finally arrived in 1972.

The holiday’s heartrending beginnings highlight how much more difficult fatherhood often was in the past, when high rates of premature death killed many fathers and made others into widowers left to raise children on their own. This Father’s Day, appreciate the progress that has given fathers more years with their families, alive and well.

Blog Post | Labor & Employment

How Work Got Good: Safer, More Interesting, More Intense

Overall, jobs have become safer, more interesting, and more intense.

Steve Jobs recruited Pepsi’s John Sculley to Apple by asking him if he wanted to spend his life selling sugared water or if he wanted “a chance to change the world.” Sculley took the chance. In all his enterprises, Jobs offered his employees the same. They were on an intense mission, where much was asked of them. The work was hard, and they were expected to care about it and devote themselves to it. But they could grow and be justly rewarded for their contributions. They were expected to question their boss, who would sometimes change his mind based on the questioning.

Some of the rewards were intangible—the “flow” of losing oneself in an important and challenging but doable activity. Other rewards were tangible. When the first Macs were shipped, Jobs took the Mac team to the parking lot, called each by name, and handed him or her a Mac with the signatures of the 46 main team members engraved inside.

Many of the higher needs that move us in pursuit of a good life are the same higher needs that move us in pursuit of a good job. The psychologist Abraham Maslow famously observed that after we satisfy physiological needs such as food, clothing, and shelter, we seek to satisfy higher needs, such as fulfillment, meaning, control, and creativity, through the choice and pursuit of challenging, meaningful projects. Too often a life of leisure does not allow sufficient satisfaction of the higher needs. It is telling that Europeans have much more leisure than Americans, but Europeans report being much less happy.

Having a challenging job where you are in control of your time is not only important for satisfying the higher needs; it also is important for satisfying the basic need for good health. One cause of constant long-term stress is boredom, which has been shown to adversely affect hormone levels and heart rates. For men, another cause of constant long-term job stress is lack of control over what projects to pursue or tasks to prioritize. According to a 2011 study published in the journal Health Psychology, men who lacked control in their work had a greater risk of death.

At first glance, it is surprising that among retirees with $1 million to $5 million in assets, 33 percent retire from one job only to then transition to working in a new one. Even among retirees with more than $5 million in assets, 29 percent continue to work. At second glance, these findings are not so surprising in a labor environment where a growing percentage of jobs are good jobs: creative, challenging, satisfying.

A skeptic might object that these findings only apply to the rich. But jobs in construction and trucking are increasingly hard to fill, suggesting that poorer workers who otherwise might build and drive also are finding better alternatives: safer, less physically exhausting, less routine.

Farm to Factory

Innovative dynamism, sometimes less aptly called creative destruction or entrepreneurial capitalism, has a long history of creating new, better jobs and also of nudging old jobs toward the challenging, meaningful peak of the hierarchy of needs. In much of human history, the powerful have been tempted to force slaves to do the most dangerous, exhausting, and boring work. But then inventors created machines that could do these tasks, reducing the temptation to enslave and hugely bettering the work lives of some of the worst off.

An early specific example of innovative dynamism improving jobs happened when kerosene replaced whale sperm oil for high-quality lighting. Collection of sperm oil required the collectors to spend days scraping spermaceti from the brain cavity of the decomposing carcass of a huge whale. Work in oil fields was far from perfect, but it was better than work in decomposing brain cavities.

Some have suggested that some of the early machines of the Industrial Revolution mainly hurt workers by replacing skilled artisans with unskilled factory workers. But most of those who worked in the factories had earlier worked on farms, not as skilled artisans. Victorian-era economist Nassau William Senior observed that the Industrial Revolution’s factory system had improved the conditions of these former farm workers. He described their new conditions as “the comparatively light labor which is exerted in the warm and airy halls of a well-regulated factory.” Charles Dickens, famous for defending the poor in his bestselling novels of the mid-1800s, praised the clean, comfortable working conditions of former farm girls in a Boston textile factory. Before they had the option of mill work, their labor on the farm would have been dirty, physically exhausting, and often dangerous and lonely.

Around 1858 in England, one 8-year-old girl did farm work 14 hours a day; she later testified that “it was like heaven to me when I was taken to the town of Leeds and put to work in a cotton factory.” By today’s standards, the conditions of the early factories were awful, but they were still better than the even more awful conditions that had prevailed in the countryside. The factory was progress, a stepping stone but not a stopping point. In the 1800s a great many people of all ages and genders voted with their feet for the factory over the farm.

Innovative dynamism also eventually greatly improved the conditions of work for those who remained on the land. Railroads opened up the possibilities for farming at a greater distance from the cities. On the fertile and less rocky fields of the Midwest, farmers could now grow more with less effort. Their work, pain, and danger were also reduced by farm innovations such as the McCormick reaper.

Today, many farmers have drones for monitoring crops, computers for calculating yields, air-conditioned tractors for comfortable plowing, and the internet for information and entertainment.

Office to Home

Over the last six decades, more and more workers have been employed in jobs emphasizing expert thinking or complex communications tasks, while fewer have been employed in jobs emphasizing routine or manual tasks.

Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps noted that innovative dynamism “has so far been an extraordinary engine for generating creative workplaces” where workers can discover and explore in the pursuit of challenging projects. Walt Disney Productions was once such a place while its founder was in charge, but it declined after cancer took him. Decades later, officials at the Walt Disney Company offered John Lasseter significantly higher pay to work for them. He declined, choosing to stay at then-independent Pixar, which, though strapped for funding, had become a new exemplar of a creative workplace. Computer-enabled innovations gave Lasseter a job at the challenging, meaningful peak of the hierarchy of needs, where he had the freedom to create a new kind of film, starting with Toy Story.

In the past, home workers were paid significantly less than in-office workers because it was harder for firms to measure and manage home workers’ productivity. The internet made this much easier, and the at-home wage penalty substantially fell between 1980 and 2000.

Another example of gains from technology is Amazon Mechanical Turk. The original Mechanical Turk in 1770 was a chess-winning “robot” eventually revealed to cleverly conceal a human chess master within the box allegedly holding the robotic mechanism. Amazon’s version is an internet platform that allows firms to hire participating workers from around the world to perform various online tasks. The surprising punchline is that Amazon Mechanical Turk was rated by its workers as treating them slightly more honestly and fairly than in-person employers in the workers’ home countries.

Almost everyone would like work that is satisfying and doable but challenging; that is in the upper meaningful peak of the hierarchy of needs. Besides that, some people want a difficult project that they can throw themselves into with intensity—what strategy gurus Jim Collins and Jerry Porras call “big, hairy, audacious goals.”

Big, intense projects appeal to our desire for exhilaration and total engagement. They are especially appealing to those who feel that their lives will be worthwhile only if they “make a ding in the universe.” Many breakthrough innovations are more dangerous at their early stages. But some workers enjoy the adventure of risky jobs, take pride in their ability to get those jobs done, or feel satisfaction at being a part of an important project.

When Joe Wilson committed his little Haloid Photographic Company to develop xerography, it was a big, intense project. Horace Becker led the team tasked to produce the first commercial Xerox machine: the model 914. His account captures something of what it feels like to be part of such a project. By the time they tried setting up their first 914 assembly line, he says, everyone was fully immersed in the project, forgetting grievances and performance ratings. All workers, from engineers to assemblers, were indistinguishable in pulling toward the common goal. They would even sneak in on Sundays to make adjustments or to admire the progress.

Big, risky dreams do not appeal to everyone. But an advantage of innovative dynamism is that it allows everyone to be intense without forcing intensity on anyone. And even though many of us will prefer a more relaxed life, we often benefit from the fruits that the intense create.

This first appeared in Reason.

Blog Post | Science & Technology

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 23: Willis Haviland Carrier

Introducing the father of modern air conditioning, Willis Haviland Carrier.

Today marks the 23rd installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled, Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the well-being of humanity. You can find the 22nd part of this series here.

This week, our hero is Willis Haviland Carrier, the American engineer who created the first modern air conditioning unit. The invention provides us respite from the summer heat; enabled our species to inhabit previously inhospitable places; increased work productivity when installed in factories and offices around the world; and saved millions of people from suffering heat-related deaths.

Willis Carrier was born on his family farm in Angola, New York on November 26, 1876. Carrier attended Central High School in Buffalo, New York and, in 1897, he won a four-year state scholarship to attend Cornell University. In 1901, Carrier graduated from Cornell with a BSE (Bachelor of Science in Engineering) in electrical engineering. In the same year, he began working as a research engineer for Buffalo Forge Company, a business based in New York that designed and manufactured steam engines and pumps.

Carrier spent the first few months of his new job working on a heating system to dry lumber and coffee. In 1902, Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing & Publishing Company asked Buffalo Forge to devise a system to control humidity in the former’s factory. The high temperatures and humidity levels in the Sackett-Wilhelms printing factory meant that the printing paper would often soak up moisture from the air, which in turn caused the paper to expand.  That was a problem, because the colors used in the printing process became misaligned when the paper changed its size, thus ruining the production process.

Carrier decided to tackle this problem. By doing so, he ended up creating the world’s first air conditioning unit in 1902. Carrier’s invention controlled the temperature, humidity and air circulation, while also cleaning the air at the Sackett-Wilhelms printing factory. It worked by drawing in air through a filter, passing the air over coils filled with coolant, and then venting the newly cooled and dehumidified air back out. That year, the New York Stock Exchange became the first building to be air-conditioned. On January 2, 1906, Carrier was issued with a patent for an “Apparatus for Treating Air.”

In 1915, after the Buffalo Forge Company decided to focus solely on manufacturing rather than design of new products, Carrier and six other engineers pooled their life savings of $32,600 (or $826,800 in today’s money) to create the Carrier Engineering Corporation. With his new company, Carrier began to expand the use of air conditioning units by supplying hotels, department stores, movie theaters and private homes. His units were even installed in the White House, the U.S. Congress and Madison Square Garden.

After experiencing financial problems as a result of the outbreak of the Great Depression, Carrier’s corporation merged with Brunswick-Kroeschell Company and York Heating & Ventilating Corporation to form the Carrier Corporation, with Carrier as Chairman of the Board. Carrier spent the rest of his life improving the design and functionality of his air conditioning units. He died on October 7, 1950 in New York City.

Carrier passed away before he was able to witness the immense surge in popularity of air conditioning during the post-war economic boom of the 1950’s, which saw air conditioning quickly spread across the United States and to other parts of the world. Thanks to Carrier’s invention, humanity was able, for the first time in its history, to consistently and accurately control the weather inside of buildings.

As the University of Rochester economist Walter Oi wrote, in machine shops, labor productivity is at its peak at 65 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity between 65 and 75 percent. Productivity is 15 percent lower at 75 degrees Fahrenheit and 28 percent lower at 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Moreover, work accident rates are 30 percent higher at 77 degrees Fahrenheit than at 67 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the introduction of air-conditioning, he argued, that caused value-added per employee in manufacturing in the American South to increase from 88.9 percent of the national average in 1954 to 96.3 percent of the national average in 1987.

Even more striking, Oi noted, was the impact of air-conditioning on U.S. mortality rates, which used to be higher in summer and winter than in spring and fall, and much higher in the U.S. South than in the U.S. North. In 1951, the infant mortality rate in the South was 45 percent higher than in New England. By 1990, it was only 13 percent higher.

In 1942, Carrier was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Alfred University. In the same year, he was given the Frank P. Brown Medal – an award for excellence in engineering and science. In 1985, Carrier was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Since its creation, air conditioning has saved and improved millions of lives. It is for those reasons that Willis Haviland Carrier is our 23rd Hero of Progress.

Blog Post | Labor & Employment

Scrooge and the Reality of the Victorian Home

Why, for young women especially, factory work was preferable to domestic labor in Dickensian times.

An image of a family gathered around a table for a meal.

We owe many popular Christmas traditions to Victorian England, from carols and decorated trees to gift-giving. These cheerful traditions stand in stark contrast with our recognition of the nightmarish working conditions at the time. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for example, the miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge exemplifies the alleged spirit of the Victorian age: heartlessness, he maintains, is good for business.

Underneath the veneer of destitution and exploitation of the era, however, things were changing for the better. The unlikely and seldom acknowledged benefactor of the poor in 19th century Britain was the factory.

When asked to picture a scene of horrifying working conditions during the Victorian era, most people conjure up the image of a 19th century factory. Yet the life of a housemaid was, at that time, far bleaker than that of most “factory girls.” That is one of many surprising insights that can be found in Judith Flanders’ fascinating bookInside the Victorian Home: factories helped improve working conditions, especially for women.

In 1851, one in three women between the ages of 15 and 24 in London worked as a domestic servant. Their work was often excruciating, and it is no wonder that many of them rushed at the opportunity to join factories and leave domestic service.

First, consider how health conditions differed for factory and domestic workers. An average housemaid “had less fresh air than a factory worker,” according to Flanders. The kitchens and sculleries of well-to-do Victorian homes, where the servants spent much of their time, were particularly unhygienic. Rats were tolerated, as servants focused their efforts on the more numerous threat: bugs. The typical “kitchen floor at night palpitate[d] with a living carpet” of cockroaches, and the typical kitchen ceiling was crawling with beetles. When the author Beatrix Potter visited her grandparents’ home in the summer of 1886, her servants “had to sit on the kitchen table [while working], as the floor heaved with cockroaches.”

As if the health hazards weren’t bad enough, consider the exhausting working hours. A typical housemaid “did at least twelve hours of heavy physical labor every day, which was two hours more than a factory worker (four hours more on Saturdays).” Also, unlike most factory workers, house servants rarely had Sundays off. A typical servant’s workday began at six o’clock in the morning at the latest, no later than five-thirty in the summer, and didn’t end until ten at night — at the earliest. Working from five in the morning until midnight was not unheard of. Servants faced an almost impossible-to-complete list of daily tasks that left practically no time to eat, rest, or clean their own quarters, let alone engage in leisure activities.

A “maid-of-all-work” or “general servant” might begin the day by drawing the home’s curtains and opening the shutters, cleaning the household’s grate, fire irons and fender, and then lighting the hearth fire. She might then dust the furniture and strew used tea leaves over the carpets to collect dust, then sweep them up again. She might sweep the hall, front steps and entrance, shaking out the rugs, and scrubbing and washing the floor — which was a laborious process before the invention of modern cleaning products. She would empty the fireplaces of cinders, ending up covered in soot. And that was just the early morning work! A moment’s idleness was not tolerated. While cruel factory foremen may loom large in the public imagination, physical punishment of servants was common.

But contra Scrooge, cruelty was often bad business — and certainly bad for employee retention. As factory work became more widespread, it improved working conditions for house servants too, as employers competed for women’s labor. Employers were “forced to slowly improve servants’ working conditions” or risk losing all their servants to the factories. In 1872, one Victorian complained “that it was now necessary… to allow their maids to go to bed at ten o’clock every night, and to give them an afternoon out every other Sunday, or no servant would stay.”

Today as well, in industrializing countries, the same story of improving working conditions is repeating. Social economist Naila Kabeer of the London School of Economics has found that for women in Bangladesh, “factory work [has] offered higher returns, better working conditions and greater dignity than they had obtained from personalized, isolated and menial forms of labor previously available to them” such as domestic service.

A Christmas Carol ends with a newly reformed Scrooge raising an employee’s salary as an act of kindness. Historically, the higher salaries and improved conditions of Victorian workers were largely driven by industrialization. Those who imagine that poor working conditions originated with the Industrial Revolution should consider the difficulties faced by many house servants. While 19th century factory work was harsh compared to the post-industrial prosperity enjoyed by many today, factories ultimately helped to improve working conditions for Victorian women — and continue to do so for many women today.

This first appeared in the American Spectator.