In two years, 410 Massachusetts Turnpike workers are set to lose their jobs. But this isn’t an ordinary job loss, brought about by lousy economic circumstances or downsizing. Rather, the employees are all toll collectors. In 2016, the Pike will begin electronic collection of all tolls, meaning these workers are, in essence, being replaced by machines. The jobs will go away, never to return.
Drivers will be happy. Even those without an E-ZPass will be able to zip through tollbooths. High-speed cameras will take a picture of their license plates, and a few days later the bill will arrive in the mail. The state will be happy too: It’ll save about $50 million annually.
The workers — not so happy. Any job loss is an individual tragedy, upending lives and creating some degree of misery and angst. Sometimes the unemployment is brief; other times it can last years or, perhaps, a new job is never found at all.
Toll workers have always been the butt of jokes, perceived as politically connected hacks doing make-work jobs at too-high wages, and perhaps all that’s true. But don’t laugh too quickly. A recent report from Oxford University estimates that about 45 percent of all existing jobs in America will be lost over the next 20 years, almost all of them replaced by computers and robots. Those include administrative jobs in offices, logistics-related positions in transportation, and construction work. A specter is raised: Will half of us no longer have anything to do?
It’s a specter that has haunted much of human history. Workers digging holes with their hands doubtless wondered the same thing upon the appearance of the shovel. Sure, more holes could be dug in the same amount of time, but what about those the shovels replaced? Predictions of widespread idleness notwithstanding, the sum total of jobs did increase. So too did wealth. If one hole had been worth a clam, then workers with a shovel could now earn far more clams than when they dug by hand. Yes, some of that would go to buy the shovel, and maybe more would go to those who now designed and regulated the burgeoning number of holes but on average and over time, those workers were better off. Not only that, but the work itself was a little more dignified — one could stand rather than kneel while in the trenches.
So it’s been through the ages. All manner of technologies have done away with jobs but have correspondingly increased productivity, wealth, and the human condition. Printing presses wiped out scriveners, but also brought about mass communication and literacy (imagine, if you would, a world without “Fifty Shades of Grey”). Vacuum cleaners and dishwashers lessened the burden of housework, making unnecessary the maids and butlers we romanticize in “Downton Abbey.” Desktop computers made secretaries obsolete, allowing mostly female workers to move from the back office to the front.
There are downsides, particularly in terms of culture and lifestyle lost. The mechanization of agriculture, for example, has made uneconomic the much-sentimentalized family farm. Overall, however, a fair reading of technology is that it has been strongly beneficial to the human race, with advances in machines going hand-in-hand with increasing prosperity, equality, and opportunity.
Yet as technology has advanced, one very real change has occurred: Machines replace jobs that are largely unskilled or less skilled. The new jobs created require expertise the old did not, and the very real worry is that those being replaced themselves become obsolete.
In the case of the toll workers, the state has set aside some of its projected savings for additional compensation and re-training. It’ll catch heat for that, but it’s the right thing to do. And more broadly speaking, the prospect that vast numbers of jobs might someday disappear argues that the most urgent priority of society is education, for kids as well as adults. It is certainly conceivable that decades from now much menial or repetitive work (and toll-taking certainly qualifies as that) will have been replaced by machines. That should be a good thing, as long as our minds are adept and ready for the new and potentially wondrous prospects such a world brings.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.