I can’t figure out what’s more remarkable: that 60% of the jobs in America today didn’t exist in 1940 or that 40% of the jobs in 1940 still exist today. There are new jobs like TikTok influencers and solar panel installers, but there are also so many professions that have endured through times of technological and societal change.
A report from McKinsey estimates that generative AI could “automate work activities that absorb 60 to 70% of employees’ time today.” I am skeptical: between 2010 and 2019—a decade that saw major technological advancements—productivity in the US grew more slowly than in any other decade of the post-World War II era, at only 1% per year.
Few things are actually disruptive. Many credit the expansion of railroads in the 19th century to be transformational for America’s industrial revolution, but the economist Robert Fogel found that had railroads never been invented, the economic output per person actually wouldn’t be much different. In 1892, the automated telephone switching system was invented and foretold the imminent loss of jobs for telephone operators, but by the late 1940s, the number of telephone operators in the US peaked at 350,000.
Perhaps it’s simply a question of attention: the more we obsess about all the ways things will change, the more we might miss all the things that don’t. The more we’re excited about what’s new and flashy, the more we forget what’s tried and true.