A history of jobs replaced by technology, and the new jobs that it created

It’s true, the robots are coming, and the computers that are already here are getting smarter by the day, but how much should workers really be worrying about tech taking their livelihoods?

lab operation robots

Reports by CEDA and the Australian Computer Society have outlined how 40-50 per cent of today’s local jobs have a moderate to high chance of disappearing completely by 2035 due to advances in technology. Whether a result of full automation or augmentation by robots and artificial intelligence, one in five workers have roles which could be completely replaced within the next 15 years.

These projections can paint a worrying picture when taken at face value, but if we look a little deeper we see that advancements in what society creates, produces and consumes have always affected how humans innovate, learn and work as part of this process. Although it may appear particularly prevalent in the digital age due to the speed at which the new emerges and evolves, changes in the work we do due to technological growth are a fact of life.

Demand driven by standard of living and income uplift in the developed world over the past century, and the emergence of supplementary activities, has led to increases in total employment over the years despite, or because of, job disruption attributable to technology. Although counterintuitive, it’s been shown that in general as productivity increases, so too do jobs, as whole new industries flourish and workers are freed up to explore ancillary opportunities. For example, just consider what may be on the horizon for renewable energies and climate adaptation, or the continued commercialisation of domestic tasks.

While there will always be jobs replaced by technology, the opposite also applies. We’ve explored sectors where technology and automation actually led to the creation of new jobs.

Agriculture, manufacturing, freight and logistics

A century ago most of the world’s population worked on farms – these days, thanks to many forms of innovation, a tiny percentage of farmers can produce the same yields. Many mass assembly line and factory operations have replaced workers over time, first with machinery and more recently with robotic capabilities, but with that shift have come extra jobs in systems development, specialised design and build, installation and upkeep, and monitoring.

What we are seeing is fewer people working ‘in the field’ in dangerous roles, and more people being employed in the operations and systems behind these industries.

tree in a lab


The rise of the internal-combustion engine destroyed a whole other personal transport industry – that around the horse and carriage. Lots of jobs were lost as a result, but rather than declining (which often happens when new technology is still improving), employment in the automotive industry escalated rapidly and there was no net loss of jobs, even though productivity per worker grew in its early days. As output went up, the price of cars dramatically decreased. This in turn meant that the number of consumers buying cars increased, helping the industry as a whole to scale up and require a larger workforce. What’s more, well paid industry workers came to form part of the market that could and would buy the products they themselves were making.

The vehicle manufacturing industry boom also gave rise to other associated workstreams in sales, marketing, maintenance and logistics, not to mention those that sprang up in other sectors in support of personal and professional automobile enabled mobility.

Knowledge based industries

As with the example of automobiles, many knowledge-based industries – including medicine, education and professional services – have seen advances in technology raising productivity and employment at the same time. Leaps in research capabilities, easier access to information and the acceleration of communications have revolutionised most businesses built on knowledge by broadening opportunities in scope and scale, with new jobs generated as a result of both this and growing demand for professional services in line with rising income.

Unlike vehicle technology, which upended an industry it specifically superseded, progress in service fields has had a more profound shift on labour roles from the more manual to the more supportive, caring or creative within economies and society in general.

Personal computing and the internet

In the United States, personal computing and the Internet have generated several million jobs since their inception, often in occupations that were once substantial but are no longer. However, a 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that over the past few decades there has been a gradual net gain of 15.8 million jobs after displacement as a direct result of the introduction of these technologies in that market.

Hardware manufacture and its inputs, software and app development, computer science and software services have all played their part in this result, but the astonishing range of roles in other industries which didn’t or couldn’t exist without computing power and connectivity makes up the majority. For example, there are fewer branch clerks now that online banking has become the norm, but of course there are more associated programmers, analysts and cyber security specialists.

It’s fair to conclude that automation and AI will replace some human jobs, but also that they will make others considerably easier or better for humans and be fundamental in the creation of new ways and means of working altogether. For organisations and their workforces, adapting to the next wave of technologies enthusiastically and efficiently will depend upon training and knowledge accumulation in creating new mixes of skills as well as new skills themselves. Companies need to embrace a redesign of process and a rethink of operations, outputs and opportunities to stay truly competitive, something their people will remain at the heart of, in one way or another.