Everyone knows the story of how robots replaced humans on the factory floor. But in the broader sweep of automation versus labor, a trend with far greater significance for the middle class—in rich countries, at any rate—has been relatively overlooked: the replacement of knowledge workers with software.
One reason for the neglect is that this trend is at most thirty years old, and has become apparent in economic data only in perhaps the past ten years. The first all-in-one commercial microprocessor went on sale in 1971, and like all inventions, it took decades for it to become an ecosystem of technologies pervasive and powerful enough to have a measurable impact on the way we work.
Sixty percent of the jobs in the US are information-processing jobs, notes Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of a recent book about this disruption, Race Against the Machine. It’s safe to assume that almost all of these jobs are aided by machines that perform routine tasks. These machines make some workers more productive. They make others less essential.
The turn of the new millennium is when the automation of middle-class information processing tasks really got under way, according to an analysis by the Associated Press based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 2000 and 2010, the jobs of 1.1 million secretaries were eliminated, replaced by internet services that made everything from maintaining a calendar to planning trips easier than ever. In the same period, the number of telephone operators dropped by 64%, travel agents by 46% and bookkeepers by 26%. And the US was not a special case. As the AP notes, “Two-thirds of the 7.6 million middle-class jobs that vanished in Europe were the victims of technology, estimates economist Maarten Goos at Belgium’s University of Leuven.”