In November 1811, northern England’s weavers and textile workers declared war on the machines. Gangs of men with faces blackened to hide their identities stormed into factories, using swords, hammers, and axes to smash apart the newfangled power looms and spinning frames that were replacing their skilled labor. The Luddite uprising raged for five years before being crushed by the British army. Dozens of textile workers were executed or exiled to Australia, their war on progress a failure. Some 200 years on, advances in automation continue to cause political and social upheaval. President Trump routinely blames the disappearance of U.S. manufacturing jobs on bad trade deals and cut-rate competition from China and Mexico—attacks that have struck a chord with Rust Belt voters. But that populist rage should really be directed at the robots (see Technology).
A recent study found that 85 percent of manufacturing job losses from 2000 to 2010 were caused by automation, not out-sourcing. American firms have been steadily cutting employees and replacing them with machines that are cheaper (they don’t need benefits) and more efficient (they don’t take vacations). U.S. factories now produce twice as much stuff as they did in 1984, but with one-third of the workers. And smarter machines will soon steal a lot more jobs: One Oxford University study predicts that 47 percent of U.S. jobs will be automated over the next two decades. Some 1.7 million truckers could be rendered redundant by self-driving vehicles, and computers could replace millions more store cashiers, insurance underwriters, and tax preparers. Lawmakers can’t ban companies from adopting new technologies, but will they be able to pass policies—such as more funding for retraining schemes—to help workers adapt to this new industrial revolution? If they don’t, we might one day see angry out-of-work accountants or truckers go Luddite, and take a hammer to their robotic replacements.
Theunis Bates Managing editor