“The future of work” is suddenly everywhere, after 500 years of talk

Since the beginning of 2016, the topic has been featured in marketing campaigns by Walmart and GE, declared a priority by two widely respected global economics think tanks, and featured on the covers of myriad business and pop culture magazines.

The Atlantic, The Economist, and the New York Times have all hosted conferences during the last two years exploring work’s evolution, as have consultancies PwC, Deloitte, and McKinsey; the Aspen Institute and Brookings Institution; and Citrix, Xerox, and Adobe. Software companies Slack and Box have their own, similar events on the calendar.

Today many worry that strides in artificial intelligence—new machines that can parse legal documents, diagnose diseases, drive trucks, and complete other jobs once thought too complex to automate—will result in widespread unemployment, just as, in the late 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I denied a patent to the inventor of a new automated knitting machine because she feared it would take the jobs of “young maidens who obtain their daily bread by knitting.”

Technology has, of course, transformed the world since the 16th century. But the debate around how it will impact jobs in the future has evolved remarkably little in the process.

As is the case today, pessimists throughout history have fretted about the impact of new inventions on the value of human labor, while optimists have pointed to past examples of how technology has improved the human condition. In our current discussion, there’s also a common counter-argument to this point. “Those weren’t thinking machines,” summarizes Vasant Dhar, a data scientist and professor at NYU. “This is not the same as last time, not the same as previous kinds of technology that changed the nature of work.”

But this, too, is not a unique argument. In 1933, the New York Times argued that the technology of the era would have unique consequences in a story headlined “the threat of the machine age:”

“We are frightened today because in the lessons of the past there is no reassurance. The past never knew such momentum, such vibration, such dislocation, such jarring transitions as we are in for.”

We’ve been having the same conversation for hundreds of years. Here are some highlights from the last 150 of them.

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