Even if you aren’t already a close follower of tech industry news, you’ve probably already heard the word “disruption” enough by now to tune it out. If there is one thing marketers like, it’s a catchy buzzword. Millennials are into irony, right?
Disruptive technology isn’t just a marketing buzzword, though. It’s a very real economic reality that has been underway for centuries and seems to only be accelerating as we move further into the 21st century.
Disruption is shorthand for the term “disruptive innovation,” which was coined by Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School in response to the Internet revolution of the 1990s. The idea is that the efficiencies created by technological innovation will allow smaller and leaner companies to effectively compete with the giants in their respective industries.
And disrupt they have: Amazon is currently the world’s largest retailer thanks to the logistical innovations made possible by computerized technologies. This has come at the price of thousands of retail jobs, however.
What Does Disruption Mean to Jobs?
For most of modern history, disruptive innovation has created more jobs than it’s destroyed. In the past wealth was created by extracting and refining things. Because people can only accomplish so much, there were real limits on how much wealth you could create.
As human technological advances have increased our ability to create wealth, they have also reduced the need for human labor. Typically, these advances become the foundation for further advances that open new job opportunities for people.
Hence the disruptive qualifier for innovations of this sort. However, since the internet revolution occurring when Christensen coined the term, some have questioned the ability for these new companies to replace the jobs lost.
Indeed, one of the benefits of increasing productivity is to lessen the need for a large human workforce. And this is one of the chief promises of workplace automation.
The continued automation of the assembly line should come as no surprise to most of us. We’ve become accustomed to images of robot arms swinging over assembly lines since the 1980s.
Even as global manufacturing output has increased dramatically over the past 60 years, the number of workers manufacturing employs has steadily fallen. Contrary to the belief that most U.S. factory jobs have been lost to cheaper international competitors, some estimate that automation has caused more factory job losses than outsourcing.
Some manufacturers are even exploring the use of dark factories, so-named because the lack of human workers means they can operate with the lights off. It seems the writing for the traditional factory job is on the proverbial pink slip.
Taxi and Transportation
Autonomous vehicles are all the rage, promising a future with fewer traffic accidents and no “rush hour” traffic. However, robotic cars and trucks are also poised to put a significant portion of the U.S. workforce out of business.
Of course, the technology isn’t quite there yet, and some argue that it won’t be for a long time, if ever. However, the C-suites of a variety of tech and automotive companies don’t seem to agree.
The ride-sharing company Uber has made several moves to support the development of autonomous transportation in recent years. Google has famously led the charge with its self-driving car Waymo, and Tesla Motors has worked on developing autonomous features into its current vehicles.
Technology leaders are banking on viable autonomous vehicles in our future. But what disruption will that cause to all the jobs that require humans to operate vehicles?
Consider a world where you can bring up a car rental app on your phone and order a car that drives itself to your location. That seems like a dream, but what about all humans behind the scenes that used to make that happen without the app and self-driving car?
The rise of autonomous vehicles doesn’t just mean a massive disruption in the human workforce, like the Internet it’s the type of innovation that will revolutionize society.
There are still some significant technological hurdles for innovators like Uber, Waymo and Tesla looking to fundamentally change the way people and goods are travel. But if you’re a young person, you should probably consider an occupation other than taxi or truck driver.
How to Know if Your Job Is Threatened by Disruptive Technology
Factory workers and taxi drivers aren’t the only ones whose occupations are threatened by an increasingly-automated workforce. Innovations in machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics are permeating throughout all aspects of business.
From developments in financial software to once-personalized things like customer service, technological advances are making some jobs redundant. Regardless of what you do, if your job can be easily done by a machine, then it’s going to be disrupted. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though.
Jobs that require creativity and empathy will dominate the future. Perhaps we’re entering an era of less busywork and more meaningful productivity.