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Robots Have Been about to Take All the Jobs for 100 Years

Blog Post | Labor & Employment

Robots Have Been about to Take All the Jobs for 100 Years

This was originally published on Pessimists Archive.

Welcome to REDUNDANT, a project by Pessimists Archive exploring the history of fears about technological unemployment. We will be publishing 10 posts for the last 10 decades exploring fears of automation.

This introductory post gives a short – but by no means comprehensive – synopsis of each decade:


The rise of horseless carriages, mass production and other new forms of automation in the first two decades of the 20th century created anxieties about the future of work and employment. A short and sharp depression in the first year of the new decade helped create unease too.

In a 1922 commencement speech at Wellesley College, President of the Rockefeller Foundation – Raymond B. Fosdick pondered: “Can education run fast enough” for people to beat the machines. A number of books would be written regarding the subject. ‘Social Decay and Regeneration’ – published in 1921 – would be reviewed by the New York Times under the title ‘Will Machines Devour Man?’, accompanied by an provocative illustration of someone being fed into a sausage making machine.

By the end of the decade The Times would be publishing editorial implying the worst case scenario may be manifesting, with data and charts coupled with illustrations of long unemployment lines, it blamed automation for workers’ “idle hands.”


The start of the Great Depression and the subsequent mass unemployment must have seemed like the fulfillment of the popular prophecy of the previous decade (and century): that automation would eventually render too many unemployed and cause societal disorder. Without a concrete cause for this sudden and shocking economic turmoil, even societies greatest thinkers would reflexively finger automation as a key cause.

Einstein implied as much in 1931 when he blamed the “great distress of current times as the result of man-made machines”, while Keynes would cite automation as a key part of the present economic strife saying “We are being afflicted with a new disease, technological unemployment.”  The term was a timely neologism that would quickly be adopted.

The rise of recorded sound and its visible impact on musicians was widely reported and offered corroboration to concerns. The ever growing concern prompted Henry Ford to write an op-ed in The New York Times ‘World’s Fair Edition’, defending machines and automation in which he’d say: “There are those who appear honestly to think that the only way to return idle men to work is to destroy the one thing that makes their jobs possible.” He pushed back against a tax on automation, noting that for every job taken, 100 new ones are created – citing his Ford Motor Company as an example.


As the 1940s began, the President of MIT, Karl Compton, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly disagreed over the impact of automation on employment. Compton pushed back on Roosevelt’s recent warning to congress that the country had not yet found a way to deal with the surplus labor created by ever increasing modes of automation.

The same year, Senator Joseph C. O’Mahoney proposed the idea of taxing employers using more than average automation to address the loss of tax revenue from displaced workers. While Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Hal Boyle wondered “Who will have the last laugh in the gadget age — man or machine?,”


Increased automation – including Ford Motor Company replacing assembly line workers, and the advent of automatic elevators – would renew concerns. Fears in the UK over a “robot revolution” swelled, while in US calls were again being made for congress to investigate automation. President Dwight Eisenhower dismissed ‘‘deplored’ fears of automation in 1955, calling them groundless, saying the same fears had “plagued people for 150 years and always proved groundless.”

The United Nations International Labour Organization would investigate the subject too, in a New York Times article the Director of the investigation wondered: “is the possibility of a completely automatic factory operating without human hands and governed primarily by electronic “brains.” This would foreshadow the next great automation panic coming in the following decades: computer based automation. A short but sharp depression at the end of the decade was termed the “Automation Depression”  by The Nation.


The election of President Kennedy in 1960 intensified the focus on technological unemployment. The Kennedy administration took automation concerns more seriously than its predecessor, with the US Secretary of Labor warning of workers being left on a “slag heap.” 1961 would see Time Magazine publish an article titled ‘The Automation Jobless’ and predictions were made that automation would end most unskilled jobs. One professor predicted counter revolution.

Even white collar workers felt unease, with innovations like ATMs threatening bank tellers, and photocopiers being called ‘poison’ to writers, publishers and academics. In response to the hysteria, business guru Peter Drucker penned an article defending automation, arguing what Henry Ford, Karl Compton and President Eisenhower had before him: “Although automation does cause job losses in some plants and industries, its over-all effect is to create more jobs than it destroys.”

In 1965 Time Magazine would run another story on the subject, this time on its cover: ‘the computer in society’, contained within it a prediction by a economist that echoed Keynes in the 1930s: automation would lead shorter work weeks.

The 1970s saw a marked acceleration of the digital revolution, as technological advancements began to permeate various industries. Many workers became concerned about the implications for their job security. Across the Atlantic UK Prime Minister James Callaghan sought the help of a think tank to investigate the potential impact of these new technologies on employment.


The computer age and advances in robotics perpetrated a cycle of fear in the 1980s. The New York Times issued a cautionary warning in an article titled ‘A Robot is After your Job’ and some economists wondered if ‘full employment’ would ever be possible again. White collar workers again feared their days were numbered.

In 1995 Jeremy Rifkin would release his book ‘The End of Work’, foretelling a ‘post-market era’, warning that the roots of societal crime are a ‘workless world’ and as this trend continues it “threatens to undermine the very foundations of modern society.” For perspective the United States just posted its best employment numbers since the 1960s. Rifkin would move on catastrophizing about Genetically Modified Foods, helping start a global movement against it.


The dot-com crash and subsequent economic downturn dampened enthusiasm for technology. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan issued a warning regarding the impact of technology on employment, setting the stage for a new wave of concern.


The raid development of self-driving cars created new concerns about technological unemployment. Google, Elon Musk and Rideshare services all made optimistic predictions that a self-driving revolution was in the offing. This prompted Bill Gates to propose a robot tax – something that some economists strongly opposed at the time.


With Elon Musk and Tesla seemingly unstoppable, and a freshly announced Tesla semi-truck with self-driving capabilities, the threat of automation again felt like an ebbing threat. Andrew Yang would propose a novel solution to the growing unease in a campaign promise for his 2020 presidential run: basic income. One of his predictions was that truck driving – one of the biggest form of employment in the US – was soon to be automated. This would re-introduce the idea of technological unemployment into the mainstream discourse. Economist Paul Krugman would push back on the idea.

In 2022 and 2023 the emergence of ‘generative AI’ kicked off a new spike in concerns and fascination with the future of employment and automation. Bill Gates would again propose a robot tax, along with unlikely ally Bernie Sanders – while Andrew Yang would seize a moment of uncertainty for another Presidential run.

As in the past, the debate isn’t about wether technology will take jobs, it is about how fast it will take them and how many it will create. It is much easier to imagine someone losing their job to a new technology, than it is to imagine many people gaining jobs that haven’t been invented yet.

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 49

Jay Richards: Human Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Jay Richards, a senior research fellow and center director at The Heritage foundation, joins Chelsea Follett to discuss why robots and artificial intelligence won't lead to widespread unemployment.

Blog Post | Science & Technology

Human Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence | Podcast Highlights

Chelsea Follett interviews Jay Richards about why robots and artificial intelligence won't lead to widespread unemployment.

Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript here.

Your book, The Human Advantage, is a couple of years old now, but it feels more relevant than ever with ChatGPT, DALL-E 2, and all of these new technologies. People are more afraid than ever of the threat of technological unemployment.

There’s something that economists call the lump of labor fallacy. It’s this idea that there’s a fixed amount of work that needs to be done, and if some new technology makes a third of the population’s work obsolete, then those people won’t have anything to do. Of course, if that were a good argument, it would have been a good argument at the time of the American founding, when almost everyone was living and working on farms. You move forward to, say, 1900, and maybe half the population was still on farms. Well, here we are in 2022, and less than 2 percent of us work on farms. If the lump of labor fallacy were true, we’d almost all be unemployed.

In reality, there’s no fixed amount of work to be done. There are people providing goods and services. More efficient work makes stuff less expensive, giving people more income to spend on more things, creating more work. But a lot of smart people think that advancements in high technology, especially in robotics and artificial intelligence, make our present situation different.

Is this time different?

I don’t think so.

Ultimately, the claim that machines will replace us relies on the assumption that machines and humans are relevantly alike. I do not buy that premise. These machines replace ways in which we do things, but there is no reason to think that they’re literally going to replace us.

A lot of us hear the term artificial intelligence and imagine what we’ve seen in science fiction. But that term is almost all marketing hype. These are sorting algorithms that run statistics. They aren’t intelligent in the sense that we are not dealing with agents with wills or self-consciousness or first-person perspective or anything like that. And there’s no reason beyond a metaphysical temptation to think that these are going to be agents. If I make a good enough tractor, it won’t become an ox. And just because I developed a computer that can run statistical algorithms well doesn’t mean it will wake up and be my girlfriend.

The economy is about buying and selling real goods and services, but it’s also about creating value. Valuable information is not just meaningless bits, it has to be meaningful. Where does meaningful information come from? Well, it comes from agents. It comes from people acting with a purpose, trying to meet their needs and the needs of others. In that way, the information economy, rather than alienating us and replacing us, is actually the economy that is most suited to our properties as human beings.

You’ve said that the real challenge of the information economy is not that workers will be replaced but that the pace of change and disruption could speed up. Could you elaborate on that? 

This is a manifestation of the so-called Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law is based on the observation that engineers could roughly double the number of transistors they put on an integrated circuit every two years. Thanks to this rapid suffusion of computational power, the economy is changing much faster than in earlier periods.

Take the transition from the agrarian to the industrial economy. In 1750, or around the time of the American founding, 90 percent of the population lived and worked on farms. In 1900, it was about half that. By 1950, it halved again. Today, it’s a very small percentage of the population. That’s amazingly fast in the whole sweep of history, but it took a few hundred years, a few generations.

Well, in my lifetime alone, I listened to vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, CDs, and then MP3 files that you had to download. Nobody even does that today. We stream them. We moved from the world of molecules to the world of bits, from matter to information.

There were whole industries built around the 8-track tape industry, making the tapes, making the machines, and repairing them. That has completely disappeared. We don’t sit around saying, “Too bad we didn’t have a government subsidy for those 8-track tape factories,” but this is an illustration of how quickly things can change.

That’s where we need to focus our attention. There can be massive disruptions that happen quickly, where you have whole industries that employ hundreds of thousands of people disappear. You can say, “I know you just lost your job and don’t know how to pay your mortgage, but two years from now, there will be more jobs.” That could be true. It still doesn’t solve the problem. If we’re panicking about Skynet and the robots waking up, we’re not focusing on the right thing, and we’re likely to implement policies that will make things worse rather than better.

Could you talk a bit about the idea of a government provided universal basic income and how that relates to this vision of mass unemployment? 

I have a whole chunk of a chapter at the end of the book critiquing this idea of universal basic income. The argument is that if technology is going to replace what everyone is doing, one, they’re not going to have a source of income, and that’s a problem. People, in general, need to work in the sense that we need to be doing something useful to be happy.

I think there are two problems with that argument. One is that it’s based on this false assumption of permanent technological unemployment that is not new. In the book, I quote a letter from a group of scientists writing to the president of the United States warning about what they call a “cybernetic revolution” and saying that these machines are going to take all the jobs and we need a massive government program to pay for it. The letter is from the 1960s, and the recipient was Lyndon Baines Johnson. This is one of the justifications for his great society programs. Well, that was a long time ago. It’s exactly the same argument. It wasn’t true then. I don’t think it’s true now.

The second point is that just giving people cash payments misses the point entirely. First, it pays people to not work. Disruption is a social problem, but the last thing you want to do is to discourage people from finding new, innovative things to do.

Entrepreneurs find new things to do, new types of work. They put their wealth at risk, and they need people that are willing to work for them. And so you want to create the conditions where they can do that. You don’t want to incentivize people not to do that.

Let’s talk a bit about digitalization. How did rival and non-rival goods relate to this idea of digitalization? 

So, a banana is a rival good. If I eat a banana, you can’t have it. In fact, I can’t have it anymore. I’ve eaten it, and now it’s gone. Lots of digital goods aren’t like this at all. Think of that mp3 file. If I download a song for $1.29 on iTunes, I haven’t depleted the stock by one. The song is simply copied onto my computer. That’s how information, in general, is. If I teach you a skill, I haven’t lost the skill; it was non-rival. More and more of our economy is dealing in these non-rival spaces. It’s exciting because rather than dealing in a world of scarcity, we’re dealing in a world of abundance.

It also means that the person who gets their first can get fabulously wealthy because of network effects. For instance, it’s really hard to replicate Facebook because once you get a few billion people on a network, the fact that billions of people are on that network becomes the most relevant fact about it. There’s a winner-take-all element to it. But, in a sense, that’s fine. Facebook is not like the robber baron who takes all the shoreline property, leaving none for anyone else. It’s not like that in the digital world. There are always going to be opportunities for other people to produce new things that were not there before.

And then there’s hyper-connectivity. You’ve said that this is something you don’t think gets enough attention; for the first time, a growing share—soon all of humanity probably—will be connected at roughly the speed of light to the internet. Can you elaborate on that? 

Yeah, this is absolutely amazing.

Half of Adam Smith’s argument was about the division of labor and comparative advantage. When people specialize, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. In the global market, we can produce everything from a pencil to an iPhone, even though no one person or even one hundred people in the network knows how. Together, following price signals, we can produce things that none of us could do on our own. Now, imagine that everyone is able to connect more or less in real time. There will be lots of cooperative things that we can do together, of course, that we could not do otherwise. 

A lot of people imagine that everybody’s going to have to be a computer engineer or a coder or something like that, but in a hyper-connected world, interpersonal skills are going to end up fetching a higher premium. In fact, I think some of the work that coders are doing is more likely to be replaced.

Do you worry about creative work, like writing, being taken over by AI? 

Algorithms can already produce, say, stock market news. But the reality is that stock market news is easily systematized and submitted to algorithms. That kind of low-level writing is going to be replaced just as certain kinds of low-level, repetitive labor were replaced. On the other hand, highly complex labor, such as artisanal craft work, is not only going to be hard to automate, but it’s also something we don’t necessarily want to automate. I might value having hand-made shoes, even if I could get cheaper machine-made shoes.

To sum up, how do you think people can best react to mass automation and advances in AI? 

I think the best way to adapt to this is to develop broad human skills, so a genuine liberal arts education is still a really good thing. Become literate, numerate, and logical, and then develop technical skills on the side, such as social media management or coding. The reality is that, unlike their parents and grandparents, who may have just done one or two jobs, young people today are likely to do five or six different things in their adult careers. They need to develop skills that allow them to adapt quickly. Sure, pick one or two specialized skills as a side gig, but don’t assume that that’s what you’re going to do forever. But if you know how to read, if you know how to write, if you are numerate and punctual, you’re still going to be really competitive in the 21st century economy.

Get Jay Richards’s book, The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in an Age of Smart Machines, here.

BBC | Labor Productivity

How Robots Are Taking over Warehouse Work

“In its warehouses, Asda uses a system from Swiss automation firm Swisslog and Norway’s AutoStore. In the US, Walmart has been automating parts of its supply chain using robotics from an American company called Symbotic.

Back in Luton, Ocado has taken its automation process to a higher level.

The robots which zoom around the grid, now bring items to robotic arms, which reach out and grab what they need for the customer’s shop.

Bags of rice, boxes of tea, packets of crumpets are all grabbed by the arms using a suction cup on the end.”

From BBC.

Axios | Labor & Employment

Average Worker Now Logs off at 4 p.m. On Fridays

“Quitting time has been shifting earlier throughout the week, and it’s especially early on Friday, according to an analysis of sign-off times from some 75,000 workers at 816 companies by the workplace analytics firm ActivTrak.

Friday sign-off times have moved up from around 5 p.m. at the start of 2021 to around 4 p.m. now. Monday-Thursday sign-offs have also shifted earlier, to around 5 p.m. on average.”

From Axios.