Future Friday: Will Robots cause social upheaval and worker revolt?

by Michael Haberman on May 9, 2014 · 0 comments


Workers have been protesting technology for a long time.

Workers have been protesting technology for a long time.

I have written numerous times on the advances of technology that may displace workers in the future. (A quick search on this site for Future Friday will take you to those posts.) There is actually a term for that, it is called “technological unemployment”. Futurist George Dvorsky said this is one term that all futurists need to know. I submit this is a term that all HR professionals need to know. So put that in your lexicon. There are other issues wrapped around this concept that HR needs to be aware of as well. These are the possibilities of worker revolt and social upheaval.

Worker revolt

There is actually an old history of workers revolting against technology. That is where the term “Luddite” comes from. According to Wikipedia “The Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-saving machinery from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work.” The name is supposedly derived from a youth, Ned Ludd, who, in 1799, was the first to destroy machinery he found threatening to his job. I am sure his trip to the 18th century HR department was a bigger threat to his job.

One of my favorite shows is on the Science channel and is called How Its Made. I am kind of geeky that way. As I watch it there is often a process that I figure could easily be automated but is not and I have wondered if that was due to a union being in place or just an attempt by management to be loyal to employees.

Social upheaval

If the technological unemployment becomes significant enough and adoption of new skills and the development of new jobs does not keep up we run the risk of social upheaval as workers, or more correctly, ex-workers protest against the loss of jobs. One of the suggested social solutions is what is called a “guaranteed minimum income.” In reality a guaranteed minimum income is an idea that been around a long time in this country when it was proposed by Thomas Paine in 1795. Its original intent was to combat poverty, but as technology advances it will be seen as a way of reducing worker unrest. Rather than being a government program it may be funded by the companies that adopted the technology. In essence, technological unemployment payments  that have no a time limitation.

While most of us think that technological advances are good things not everyone will agree with you. That is why we need to consider the downside consequences of this advancing technology.


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