Since When Is Progress Bad for White or Blue Collar Workers?

Have you ever heard of a city, state or country that’s thriving by virtue of being economically stuck in the past? Neither have I.

It’s something to think about as normally wise minds wring their hands about the coming age of AI. Glenn Harlan Reynolds is one of those wise minds. AI and other intellectual advances that will make it more and more possible for machines to think and do for us have Reynolds gloating… about what it allegedly means for white collar workers. 

In a recent piece for the New York Post, Reynolds indicated that the proliferation of AI means that white collar workers will soon feel the pain of job loss that blue collar workers historically have. That’s the gloat, get it? Those self-satisfied elites have it coming to them. Oh please.

The happier truth is that the rich almost as a rule live closest to where technology is most prevalent. This is important. Technology by its very name signals job destruction whereby machines increasingly replace humans in the completion of work. Think the tractor, the car, or the computer. All three are robots that profoundly changed the nature of work by destroying the work of the past in favor of better opportunity. Of course, none of those advances put us into breadlines as much as they elevated our work while vastly expanding the range of ways that we could work.

To all this, it seems Reynolds and others would reply that technological advances erased the jobs of the blue collar workers most notably, which is surely a feature of these advances. For blue collar workers. If anyone doubts this, they need only visit locales like Aliquippa, PA that were once filled to the brim with blue collar workers who toiled in factories and mills owned by J & L Steel.

Crucial about the work that once defined Aliquippa is that it was miserable. The latter isn’t a comment from some out-of-touch “white collar” type like yours truly, rather that was the dominant opinion of those who worked in the mills. This is useful as a way of putting to bed the absurd notion that the closing of a mill, factory or company is what kills off towns and cities. In reality, what kills formerly prosperous locales is the departure of people, and in the case of Aliquippa, parents and older brothers risked their lives going into mills and factories so that their sons and younger brothers wouldn’t have to. The simple truth is that the work of the past was awful, and it repelled the very human capital that imbues towns and cities with vitality.

One hundred years ago, New York and Los Angeles were 1 and 4 in the U.S. when it came to manufacturing work, Flint and Milwaukee 2 and 3. This is just a hint that the cities evolving the fastest, and leaving the past behind the fastest, are powerful magnets for the people and investment without which there is no progress, and vanishingly few jobs.

Reynolds would have readers believe that the technology that’s long been a foe of the blue collar demographic is now coming for the white collars, but his analysis is backwards. Technology is what has long freed blue collar types from work they despise, and just the same, it’s soon to do the same for those who work in the proverbial indoors. Which should be a statement of the obvious.

Just as work divided among hands and machines powerfully lifts the productivity and pay of workers with collars that are blue, so will AI advances that, if the predictions are true, promise to automate away 80% of the work required in 80% of the jobs. Imagine what that means for workers regardless of background, or educational attainment. Soaring productivity born of specialization that will cause individuals to fall in love with work that uniquely boosts their specific skills and intelligence.

This future won’t burden the white collars, as much as it will vivify their skills even more. Will their work change? Let’s hope. That’s called progress. It’s where work is not changing that economic life is most soul crushing for workers of all kinds.

Which brings us back to the basic question: are cities, states and countries better off for remaining stuck in the past thanks to either subpar technology or barriers to it? Hopefully the question answers itself. It’s because AI will erase so many white collar jobs that white collar workers will soon feel the opposite of pain.

Republished from RealClear Markets

Author

  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

Scroll to Top