In America, the combination of high unemployment and the start of the presidential election process has sparked a great deal of debate about how jobs are created, and lost. Nothing new there. Similar academic and populist debates have been part of every modern recession, as society seeks both strategies – legislation, fiscal and monetary policies – and scapegoats – corporations, machines, trade, foreigners, etc.
What’s different today is that information technology is now at the center of the discussion. Over the decades, we have grown used to thinking of IT as an engine of economic growth. But in the current marketplace of ideas, IT’s ability to eliminate jobs is getting a lot more attention than its capacity to create them. Whether this shift in attitude is warranted or not, it’s a potentially huge change in the way our industry is perceived. Moreover, unless the national unemployment picture improves considerably, concern over IT’s effect on jobs will likely increase sharply in 2012 and beyond.
President Obama moved the issue into the mainstream media in June 2011 when he remarked: “There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.” Never mind that ATMs have been around for decades (or that airport kiosks are used at check-in, not the gate), the President of the United States essentially said that technological progress is eliminating jobs, resulting in “some” level of structural unemployment, a potent phrase in economic circles.