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A world without work?

With rise of technology, many middle-class jobs could be eliminated, analysis finds

  • ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS  PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M.  FILE- In this Thursday, April 23, 2009, file photo, Jerald Vance, 50, is silhouetted as he waits to talk to a job counselor at a Nevada Jobconnect Career Center in Las Vegas. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. That experience has left some economists to worry that the sluggish, lopsided labor market of the past five years will continue as smarter machines and niftier software will continue to replace more and more midpay jobs, making businesses more productive and swelling their profits. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

    ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M. FILE- In this Thursday, April 23, 2009, file photo, Jerald Vance, 50, is silhouetted as he waits to talk to a job counselor at a Nevada Jobconnect Career Center in Las Vegas. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. That experience has left some economists to worry that the sluggish, lopsided labor market of the past five years will continue as smarter machines and niftier software will continue to replace more and more midpay jobs, making businesses more productive and swelling their profits. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

  • ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS  PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M. FILE -This March 20, 1944, file photo shows switchboard operators in London. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. Peter Lindert, an economist at the University of California-Davis, does not believe workers are doomed to unemployment. With the right skills and education, he says, they can learn to work with the machines. (AP Photo/File)

    ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M. FILE -This March 20, 1944, file photo shows switchboard operators in London. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. Peter Lindert, an economist at the University of California-Davis, does not believe workers are doomed to unemployment. With the right skills and education, he says, they can learn to work with the machines. (AP Photo/File)

  • ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS  PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M. FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013 - FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011, file photo, exhibitors and buyers at the Consumer Electronics Show walk by a display of LG HDTV screens, in Las Vegas. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. That experience has left some economists to worry that smarter machines and niftier software will continue to replace more and more midpay jobs, making businesses more productive and swelling their profits. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

    ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M. FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013 - FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011, file photo, exhibitors and buyers at the Consumer Electronics Show walk by a display of LG HDTV screens, in Las Vegas. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. That experience has left some economists to worry that smarter machines and niftier software will continue to replace more and more midpay jobs, making businesses more productive and swelling their profits. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

  • ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS  PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M.- FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009, file photo, an engineer checks communication cables in the Media Gateway (MGW) lab simulating translation between disparate telecommunications networks, in Ericsson's research and development center in Budapest, Hungary. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. That experience has left a growing number of technologists and economists wondering if middle-class jobs will return when the global economy recovers, or are they lost forever because of the advance of technology. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky, File)

    ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M.- FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009, file photo, an engineer checks communication cables in the Media Gateway (MGW) lab simulating translation between disparate telecommunications networks, in Ericsson's research and development center in Budapest, Hungary. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. That experience has left a growing number of technologists and economists wondering if middle-class jobs will return when the global economy recovers, or are they lost forever because of the advance of technology. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky, File)

  • ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS  PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M. FILE - In this March, 6, 1953, file photo, Jane Martin remains seated and files paperwork using a hydraulic lift in Chicago, Ill.  An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. Peter Lindert, an economist at the University of California-Davis, does not believe workers are doomed to unemployment. With the right skills and education, Lindert says, workers can learn to work with the machines and become productive enough to fend off the automation threat.  (AP Photo/Edward Kitch, File)

    ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M. FILE - In this March, 6, 1953, file photo, Jane Martin remains seated and files paperwork using a hydraulic lift in Chicago, Ill. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. Peter Lindert, an economist at the University of California-Davis, does not believe workers are doomed to unemployment. With the right skills and education, Lindert says, workers can learn to work with the machines and become productive enough to fend off the automation threat. (AP Photo/Edward Kitch, File)

  • ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS  PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M.  FILE- In this Thursday, April 23, 2009, file photo, Jerald Vance, 50, is silhouetted as he waits to talk to a job counselor at a Nevada Jobconnect Career Center in Las Vegas. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. That experience has left some economists to worry that the sluggish, lopsided labor market of the past five years will continue as smarter machines and niftier software will continue to replace more and more midpay jobs, making businesses more productive and swelling their profits. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
  • ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS  PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M. FILE -This March 20, 1944, file photo shows switchboard operators in London. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. Peter Lindert, an economist at the University of California-Davis, does not believe workers are doomed to unemployment. With the right skills and education, he says, they can learn to work with the machines. (AP Photo/File)
  • ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS  PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M. FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013 - FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011, file photo, exhibitors and buyers at the Consumer Electronics Show walk by a display of LG HDTV screens, in Las Vegas. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. That experience has left some economists to worry that smarter machines and niftier software will continue to replace more and more midpay jobs, making businesses more productive and swelling their profits. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)
  • ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS  PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M.- FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009, file photo, an engineer checks communication cables in the Media Gateway (MGW) lab simulating translation between disparate telecommunications networks, in Ericsson's research and development center in Budapest, Hungary. An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. That experience has left a growing number of technologists and economists wondering if middle-class jobs will return when the global economy recovers, or are they lost forever because of the advance of technology. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky, File)
  • ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS  PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M. FILE - In this March, 6, 1953, file photo, Jane Martin remains seated and files paperwork using a hydraulic lift in Chicago, Ill.  An Associated Press investigation released in January 2013 found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have disappeared over the past five years and have been replaced with technology. Peter Lindert, an economist at the University of California-Davis, does not believe workers are doomed to unemployment. With the right skills and education, Lindert says, workers can learn to work with the machines and become productive enough to fend off the automation threat.  (AP Photo/Edward Kitch, File)

They seem right out of a Hollywood fantasy, and they are: Cars that drive themselves have appeared in movies like I, Robot and the television show Knight Rider.

Now, three years after Google invented one, automated cars could be on their way to a freeway near you. In the United States, California and other states are rewriting the rules of the road to make way for driverless cars. Just one problem: What happens to the millions of people who make a living driving cars and trucks – jobs that always have seemed sheltered from the onslaught of technology?

“All those jobs are going to disappear in the next 25 years,” predicts Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University in Houston. “Driving by people will look quaint; it will look like a horse and buggy.”

If automation can unseat bus drivers, urban deliverymen, long-haul truckers, even cabbies, is any job safe?

Vardi poses an equally scary question: “Are we prepared for an economy in which 50 percent of people aren’t working?”

An Associated Press analysis of employment data from 20 countries found that millions of midskill, midpay jobs already have disappeared over the past five years, and they are the jobs that form the backbone of the middle class in developed countries. That experience has left a growing number of technologists and economists wondering what lies ahead. Will middle-class jobs return when the global economy recovers, or are they lost forever because of the advance of technology? The answer may not be known for years, perhaps decades. Experts argue among themselves whether the job market will recover, muddle along or get much worse.

To understand their arguments, it helps to understand the past.

Every time a transformative invention took hold over the past two centuries – whether the steamboat in the 1820s or the locomotive in the 1850s or the telegraph or the telephone – businesses would disappear and workers would lose jobs. But new businesses would emerge that employed even more.

The combustion engine decimated makers of horse-drawn carriages, saddles, buggy whips and other occupations that depended on the horse trade. But it also resulted in huge auto plants that employed hundreds of thousands of workers, who were paid enough to help create a prosperous middle class.

“What has always been true is that technology has destroyed jobs but also always created jobs,” says Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University. “You know the old story we tell about (how) the car destroyed blacksmiths and created the auto industry.”

The astounding capabilities of computer technology are forcing some mainstream economists to rethink the conventional wisdom about the economic benefits of technology, however. For the first time, we are seeing machines that can think – or something close to it.

In the early 1980s, at the beginning of the personal computer age, economists thought computers would do what machines had done for two centuries – eliminate jobs that required brawn, not brains. Low-level workers would be forced to seek training to qualify for jobs that required more skills. They’d become more productive and earn more money. The process would be the same as when mechanization replaced manual labor on the farm a century ago; workers moved to the city and got factory jobs that required higher skills but paid more.

But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. It turns out that computers most easily target jobs that involve routines, whatever skill level they require. And the most vulnerable of these jobs, economists have found, tend to employ midskill workers, even those held by people with college degrees – the very jobs that support a middle-class, consumer economy.

So the rise of computer technology poses a threat that previous generations of machines didn’t: The old machines replaced human brawn but created jobs that required human brains. The new machines threaten both.

“Technological change is more encompassing and moving faster and making it harder and harder to find things that people have a comparative advantage in” versus machines, says David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the loss of midpay jobs to technology.

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