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It was a cold, miserable winter day on the coast of North Carolina when two brothers achieved something remarkable. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright flew their bizarre-looking flying machine for 12 seconds, covering 120 feet.
Less than eight years later, Cal Rodgers began the first transcontinental flight across the United States.
Fifteen years after that, Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo, non-stop transatlantic flight in history, flying the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris.
Seven U.S. presidents later, humans walked on the moon.
Today, it’s a cliche to say that technology is changing faster than ever. We tell ourselves that the pace of change is breathtaking, forcing us to adapt to shifting conditions more quickly than we’ve ever had to before.
Except that it’s not really true. It’s hard to argue that today’s pace of technological change is any faster than it was between 1903 and 1911 — from Kitty Hawk to the first transcontinental flight.
In some ways, technology over the last few decades actually hasn’t changed much at all. The first email was sent half a century ago. The World Wide Web became publicly available more than thirty years ago. The first scanning of a UPC barcode was on a pack of Wrigley chewing gum in June 1974. Richard Nixon was the president, and the U.S was still embroiled in the Vietnam War.
We may feel like things are changing around us at a pace never before experienced, but in the larger context of the pace of technological innovations over the last century or so, it’s not really the case.
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The types of technological changes are very different
Yet while the pace of technological change may not be any faster, the types of changes that are affecting our economy — and our businesses — are very different. These changes are dramatically altering the traditional role of humans in the economy and are causing us to reexamine our role as workers in the job market.
Take, for example, the internet. It’s not new, but what it can do today makes it almost indistinguishable from the clunky, modem-based dial-up versions of the 1990s. Neither is the touch tone phone new; that technology goes back to the 1960s. But what phones can do today is shocking. Anyone with a smartphone and a credit card can book a flight from Toronto to Mumbai with a few taps on a tiny glass screen.
The advent of flight had an enormous impact on the 20th-century economy — moving people and goods thousands of miles in a fraction of the time represented a seismic shift in the dynamics of transportation. But humans were still required to build, fuel and fly the planes.
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The role of humans in the economy is no longer as secure
Now that we’re more than a fifth of the way into the 21st century, the role of humans in the economy is no longer as secure. Artificial intelligence and robotics (which are also not new) are affecting almost every human job, in ways both good and bad. By some estimates, nearly half the jobs of today will be in some way impacted by the role of machines that will have the ability to learn and adapt.
What we need to understand is how this new change is altering the role of human labor in the economy. How we connect to the job market is changing, and that has massive implications for businesses and entrepreneurs. Jobs are more relational and interpersonal, requiring soft skills like empathy, humor and tactful communication. Workers today are more likely to say their jobs are personally satisfying, and many workers would even say they’re fulfilling.
Of course, not everyone can say the same thing. Those that are locked into low-skill, repetitive, soul-killing jobs may find themselves out of work as robotics easily replace them. That has implications for societal well-being and could further threaten political and economic stability if ignored.
Today’s pace of technological change isn’t any faster than at other points in history. We’ve seen rapid technological innovation before. But what has changed is the way we’re using technology to transform our jobs and our relationship to work.