On Monday we celebrate American workers, as we do every year. And we do so as American workers worry about their future, as they have for many years.
They have seen technology advance by leaps and bounds, and understand that for many businesses, it would be cheaper to automate their jobs. They wonder whether and when a robot will replace them.
There is reason for their concern. As many as half of U.S. jobs are at risk for automation. The nation already has lost 5 million factory jobs since 2000, the vast majority to technology and automation, while manufacturing output increased. The result has been a tectonic shift in who works where, and in how America sustains its employment base.
But the truth is that our workforce is always in flux. Technology displaces, the nation adjusts. Innovation disrupts, it brings benefits. Consider a world where a doctor in Boston can direct surgery in Morocco, autonomous vehicles make driving accidents rare, drones drop purchases on your doorstep, and goods are even less expensive to make and buy.
History tells us that even as certain tasks are automated, others won’t be. Some jobs will change significantly, others will remain intact. And new jobs we’re not even thinking about now will be created. Workers lacking a college education will be more vulnerable, but artificial intelligence is less likely to replace jobs that require creative thinking, personal service and human interaction. Cashiers and truck drivers might need to learn to use their skills in other ways, but the world still needs teachers, doctors, writers, actors, researchers and engineers.
The current wave of technology seems more sweeping than those of the past, and the uncertainty it has created feels more profound. Many workers feel unmoored. But resisting this advance would be, yes, counterproductive. Our nation must prepare our workers for what’s coming, even if we don’t know exactly what that is, with a constantly evolving effort to retrain and transform the workforce, to move forward with technology and find our place among the robots.
On this Labor Day, let’s honor the American worker of today — and plan for the one of tomorrow.