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The Irreplaceable, Human Actor

January 28, 2013

Science fiction books and movies have cautioned audiences for decades of a future in which humankind’s technological advances would ultimately lead to humanity’s own demise. Well, according to a recent Associated Press analysis, this forewarned future has arrived.

According to the analysis, five years after the start of the Great Recession, a frightening new reality has emerged: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost in developed countries across the globe. This may seem obvious to all who watch the nightly news as a steady stream of conversation covers the concerning topic of lost jobs. However, according to the Associated Press, the situation is even worse than it appears. Experts who study the labor market argue that most these middle-class jobs will never return, and millions more are bound to disappear–not because they are being outsourced to other countries like China; rather, they are vanishing in the service sector, which accounts for two-thirds of all workers. The culprit? Technology.

While it’s established that for three decades technology has diminished the amount of jobs in manufacturing, now robots and machinery are overtaking many service jobs in large corporations, small businesses, schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and medical facilities, retail establishments, the military as well as impacting just about every kind of organization that employs people. The growing trend affords consumers self-service capabilities giving us a certain amount of control: we can shop, be educated, transfer money in bank accounts, and renew library books conveniently from our homes for instance. Many can work while on vacation due to modern technological advances. The consequence of these modern marvels is that many people were laid off. Also, consumers can find this new set up frustrating, for example, when they need to deal with an automated answering machine instead of a living, breathing human when an issue of customer-service occurs.

But it’s the loss of the mid-pay jobs that hurts the most. Research firm, Moody’s Analytics, asserts that while 50% of U.S. jobs were lost in mid-pay jobs during the Great Recession, only 2% of the 3.5 million jobs gained are in the mid-pay range. This reflects a stark difference from previous recessions, in which 30-46% of jobs created were in mid-pay industries. Other studies that categorize jobs differently conclude similar findings.

For centuries, technological progress reduced the number of employees required in businesses around the globe. But over time, more work was created along with increasing opportunities for greater wealth. This pattern has changed along with the Great Recession, however. The lagging economy forced employers to cut costs drastically in order to survive. Replacing people with technology was a no brainer for businesses. But as the economy takes turns for the better, what business is likely to get rid of their money-saving technology and replace it with significantly higher-costing employees? Occupations that have provided a middle-class lifestyle for generations can now vanish in a few years. For example, power companies started installing technological “smart readers” outside homes; this has resulted in a plunging number of meter readers in the U.S. from 56,000 in 2001 to 36,000 in 2010, according to the Labor Department. In ten years, than number is projected to be zero.

Experts are predicting now that there is virtually no end to the manner in which computers are forging a new work landscape. Some argue software will eventually threaten the livelihoods of lawyers, doctors, and other highly skilled professionals.

With increasingly sophisticated software, machines and devices replacing humans in the work force, some questions for actors are: Can smart machines do your job? Can a machine sell a product or service over a TV screen? Or does that require an actual human being? Will all movies go the route of animation? Or will people always gravitate to movies, TV, and theater featuring Homo sapiens just like themselves? Please share your thoughts and insights on this provocative issue.