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How is society changing?

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In the 1800s it was the Luddites smashing weaving machines. These days retail staff worry about automatic checkouts. Sooner or later taxi drivers will be fretting over self-driving cars. The battle between man and machines goes back centuries. Are they taking our jobs? Or are they merely easing our workload?

A study by economists at the consultancy Deloitte seeks to shed new light on the relationship between jobs and the rise of technology by trawling through census data for England and Wales going back to 1871. Their conclusion is unremittingly cheerful: rather than destroying jobs, technology has been a “great job-creating machine”. Findings by Deloitte such as a fourfold rise in bar staff since the 1950s or a surge in the number of hairdressers this century suggest to the authors that technology has increased spending power, therefore creating new demand and new jobs.

Their study, shortlisted for the Society of Business Economists’ Rybczynski prize, argues that the debate has been skewed towards the job-destroying effects of technological change, which are more easily observed than its creative aspects. Going back over past jobs figures paint a more balanced picture, say authors Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole. “The dominant trend is of contracting employment in agriculture and manufacturing being more than offset by rapid growth in the caring, creative, technology and business services sectors,” they write. “Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labor than at any time in the last 150 years.”“A collision of technologies, indoor plumbing, electricity, and the affordable automatic washing machine have all but put paid to large laundries and the drudgery of hand-washing,” says the report.

The report cites a “profound shift”, with labor switching from its historic role, as a source of raw power, to the care, education, and provision of services to others. It found a 909% rise in nursing auxiliaries and assistants over the last two decades. Analysis of the UK Labour Force Survey from the Office for National Statistics suggests the number of these workers soared from 29,743 to 300,201 between 1992 and 2014. In the same period, there was also a 580% increase in teaching and educational support assistants, 183% increase in welfare, housing, youth and community workers, and 168% increase in care workers and home carers. On the other hand, there was a 79% drop in weavers and knitters from 24,009 to 4,961, 57% drop in typists and 50% drop in company secretaries.

The Deloitte economists believe that rising incomes have allowed consumers to spend more on personal services, such as grooming. That, in turn, has driven employment of hairdressers. So while in 1871, there was one hairdresser or barber for every 1,793 citizens of England and Wales; today there is one for every 287 people.

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