My grandmother, Claire Hastings, was born in the 1920s on a farm in Armidale in northern New South Wales. It was a relatively common thing, with just 43% of the population living in the city, compared to over 70 percent now.
She lived in a small wooden cabin, with a chicken coop in front and fields behind. When she and her siblings came home from school, they helped plow the fields with a horse-drawn plow until sunset.
Little did she know that this life would soon be gone. The “second industrial revolution” (of mass production and standardization) created machines to replace human power and motive power. A tractor-drawn plow could do in hours what took Grandma and her siblings a week.
Grandmother’s brother, John, working the plow (circa 1929) Photo: Bradley Hastings, author provided
By the time she left school at 17, she was no longer needed on the farm. So she went to college, became a teacher, got married and started a family. Now 93, she lives in a comfortable four-bedroom suburban home, enjoys dining out and loves going to the theater and taking ocean cruises.
His story is far from unique. Around the world, industrialization has dramatically reduced agricultural employment. In the United States, for example, 40% of the labor force worked on farms in 1920; now it’s about 2 percent.
The loss of these jobs and their replacement are worth remembering as we face the “fourth industrial revolution”, with robots and artificial intelligence set to take up to 40% of jobs now made by humans in two decades.
the the list of results is longfrom drivers and call center workers to computer programmers and college professors like me (we face being replaced by AI avatars, streaming animated content online).
But just as the disappearance of agricultural jobs did not lead to permanent mass unemployment, neither should we fear this next stage of technological development.
Improve quality of life
Although industrial agriculture was not universally seen as progress, the huge reductions in agricultural labor during the 20th century were the key to a better life for most people (although poverty and gross economic inequality still exist).
To cite just one measure, when my grandmother was born, the average life expectancy in Australia was 60 years. Now it’s over 80.
The underlying forces driving such advances are twofold.
First, the mechanization of agriculture made food cheaper. US data shows that the price of a common basket of groceries is now about 80% cheaper than a century ago. Similar trends exist for virtually every other consumable product.
Second, spending less on food meant people could spend more on other things. New industries have sprung up – automobiles, vacations, healthcare, finance, fitness and education, etc. Industries virtually unheard of in the 1920s today employ more than the half of the population.
These new industries have both supported the improvement of our quality of life and, above all, created new jobs.
As artificial intelligence and robotics develop, services such as banking, insurance and transportation will become cheaper. As a result, we will have more money to spend on other things – on health and fitness, travel and recreation, and possibilities yet to be designed.
Regardless of these new or expanded industries, jobs will evolve as the quality of life improves for all.
Two lessons from my grandmother
Of course, none of this will necessarily make you feel any better if you have (and love) a job threatened by automation.
A few life lessons from my grandmother may help.
First, she didn’t take the changes personally. She understood that times were changing and that she should change with them. She accepted the challenge rather than being defeated by it.
The author with his grandmother on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Photo: Bradley Hastings, author provided
Second, she understood that she had to develop new skills. As agricultural jobs dwindled, she saw a growing demand for more teachers, underpinned by government regulations requiring children to stay in school longer. Likewise today, education is the key to future jobs.
None of us know what the future holds. But for our collective future to replicate the progress my grandmother saw in her lifetime, it’s inevitable that artificial intelligence and robots will take over.
I asked grandma if we should be worried. “Life goes on,” she told me.
And U.S. too.