Here’s a startling fact: in the 45 years since the introduction of the automated teller machine, those vending machines that dispense cash, the number of human bank tellers employed in the United States has roughly doubled, from about a quarter of a million in 1970 to a half a million today, with 100,000 added since the year 2000. These facts, revealed in Boston University economist James Bessen’s recent book Learning by Doing, raise an intriguing question: What are all those tellers doing, and why hasn’t automation eliminated their employment by now?

Dive into this fascinating article about the future of employment, the automation of tasks, and the subtly changing relationship humans have with the work that they do. David Autor makes the compelling argument that as automation increases, the human component of work, particularly when dealing with complex and cognitively demanding tasks, becomes increasingly important.

The O-ring production function conceives of work as a series of interlocking steps, links in a chain, and every one of those links must hold for the mission to succeed. If any of them fails, the mission, product or service comes crashing down. This precarious situation has a surprisingly positive implication, which is that improvements in the reliability of any one link in the chain increase the value of improving any of the other links. Conversely, if most of the links are brittle and prone to breakage, the fact that your link is not that reliable is not that important because something else will probably break anyway. But as all the other links become robust and reliable, the importance of each link becomes more essential. The reason the O-ring was critical to space shuttle Challenger is because everything else worked perfectly.

In much of the work that we do, we are the O-rings. Yes, ATMs could do certain cash-handling tasks faster and better than tellers, but that didn’t make human tellers superfluous. Instead, it increased the importance of their problem-solving skills and their relationships with customers.

Another perspective on the future of work comes from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, where they’ve found that jobs with predominantly routine tasks have declined, but non-routine jobs continue to grow.

 

While we can’t say for sure what exactly this means for workers, it doesn’t suggest that we should panic or just resign ourselves to a future where the robots have taken over all of our jobs.

 

There is still time.