The Impact of Computers on Employmentby Edward Mercer
It's impossible to overstate the profound impact of computer technology on employment trends and workforce structure in the modern economy. Thinking back as recently as the 1980s, the same decade in which computer use in the U.S. went from just over a quarter of the workforce to nearly half according to a study by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, career fields such as computer programming scarcely existed, yet workers also completed jobs that have today been automated by computers. Computers impact employment by both creating and destroying jobs, but, more than anything, by changing the nature of the jobs available.
Generally associated with increases in workplace productivity, computers allow each employee, using quick technologies such as email and Internet fact-checking, to accomplish more with every hour of work. While increases in productivity allow some employers to scale back on hiring, the reality is that more productive workers are a better labor investment, and employers interested in growing their businesses are actually more likely to hire new people and expand. As an industry in itself, computer technology also creates jobs in new fields like programming, computer-aided design and animation, Internet marketing and online publishing.
While computers have spawned entire new career fields, their introduction has also displaced many workers, especially in low-skill jobs such as warehouse clerks and basic data processing that were among the first to be replaced by automated computer technology. In sectors like manufacturing that grow more slowly and require large capital investments to do so, improvements in productivity brought about by computers can justify layoffs long before enough capital is available to invest in job-creating improvements like new factories.
Stratifying the Workforce
Looking at the workforce as a whole, one of the more contentious issues surrounding the effects of computers on employment is that is creates and destroys jobs at different ends of the economy. Computers tend to create high-paying, high-skill technical jobs and destroy low-paying, low-skill jobs. From a social perspective, the problem is that low-skill workers don't tend to have the job training necessary to seek the high-skill jobs created and, unless a society invests the gains from the top of the economy in changing that situation, the workforce becomes increasingly polarized.
Beyond the impacts of computers on the jobs we hold, the devices also change the way we do our jobs. Combined with information technology tools such as Internet messaging and file transferring, computers allow for greater flexibility in working arrangements. This flexibility can improve quality-of-life factors for workers with systems like Internet freelancing, telecommuting and the ability to work internationally, but it also introduces risks such as a lack of job security, fewer opportunities for interactions with peers and co-workers and reduced possibilities of having basic benefits such as health insurance.
- London School of Economics: The Impact of Computer Use, Computer Skills and Computer Use Intensity
- Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: Technology, Productivity and Job Creation
- Univeristy of Notre Dame: Impact of New Computer Systems on Employment
- BBC: Changing Work Patterns
- New York Times: Jobs Created and Displaced
- Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images