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Opinion
Tyler Cowen

Industrial Revolution Comparisons Aren't Comforting

More automation may be good in the long run, but history tells us there'll be turmoil along the way.
The machines bring trouble.

The machines bring trouble.

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“Why should it be different this time?” That’s the most common response I hear when I raise concerns about automation and the future of jobs, and it’s a pretty simple rejoinder. The Western world managed the shift out of agricultural jobs into industry, and continued to see economic growth. So will not the jobs being displaced now by automation and artificial intelligence lead to new jobs elsewhere in a broadly similar and beneficial manner? Will not the former truck drivers, displaced by self-driving vehicles, find work caring for the elderly or maybe fixing or programming the new modes of transport?

As economics, that may well be correct, but as history it’s missing some central problems. The shift out of agricultural jobs, while eventually a boon for virtually all of humanity, brought significant problems along the way. This time probably won’t be different, and that’s exactly why we should be concerned.