What labor historians believe AI could do for some jobs

A person holds a sign as members of SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America East walk down a picket line in front of the HBO/Amazon offices during National Union Solidarity Day on August 22, 2023 in New York City.

Michael M Santiago | Getty Images

The internet is buzzing with the launch of generative AI tools like ChatGPT, which garnered tens of millions of users within months of its release in fall 2022. Google and Microsoft are also currently testing their own generative AI tools. And people are nervous.

According to a recent Jobs for the Future survey of 2,204 adults, more than a third (37%) of adults are pessimistic about the future impact of AI on workers, and 25% believe AI will harm their industry.

Changes in technology in the workplace are nothing new. “Technology that is changing the way we work is just a 200-year story since the industrial revolution,” says Aaron Benanav, assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University.

What makes generative AI different — at least in the way it’s widely discussed — is that it “could disrupt traditional professions like legal services, financial services, and therefore higher-paying jobs,” says Felix Koenig, an assistant professor of economics at the Carnegie Mellon University. And maybe those jobs were seen as immune.

A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that jobs where core tasks could be replaced or assisted by AI tend to be “in higher-paying fields where a college education and analytical skills can be beneficial.”

The story could help predict how generative AI “might actually impact or transform work in the future,” says Benanav. Here’s what historians might expect for some roles.

Generative AI could change the nature and parameters of certain jobs.

Tools like ChatGPT could be used to take a complex role that a person was performing and “break that one job down into five jobs, or 10 jobs, or even around 50 jobs,” says Jason Resnikoff, an assistant professor of contemporary history at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Each of these jobs would then require less skill and expertise to ultimately complete the larger project.

Resnikoff cites as an example what could happen to writers in the entertainment industry who have been on strike since May 2, in part because negotiations over the use of AI in their field have stalled.

One option would be, “We’re going to have an assembly line for a script for some TV show,” he says, adding, “AI would produce bad dialogue, and then there would be the dialogue finisher. And then it would produce a bad one.” premise, and there would be the premise coordinator. They would have many different writing jobs – none of them are writers. And each of these jobs would theoretically require fewer skills and be paid less than a writer’s current job.

Another option would be to “create a two-tier system,” he says.

The top tier would be “a very thin layer of artisans who are paid very well and work like a boutique store,” says Resnikoff. Second-tier workers would have “really crappy jobs and jobs that are extremely insecure.” While the top-notch writers might work on every component of a script, “all the other TV shows are typewritten and all these people are working on it,” says he.

“S—–jobs,” as Resnikoff describes them, get to the heart of the kind of job degradation this direction would lead to. In the past, larger roles that required a lot of skill and expertise were broken down into a series of smaller roles, which has allowed employers to say, “You make so much less,” says Resnikoff, “so we pay you half of what you do.” previously earned.”

Introducing new technology into the process was one way to “turn good jobs into bad jobs,” he says.

Another potential impact of this new technology is that some jobs will be wiped out entirely. As an example, Koenig cites what happened after the introduction of sound films, i.e. films with sound, in the 1920s.

Up to this point, movie theaters hired musicians to play live music while the otherwise silent film was running. “There was actually a big union-led movement against the introduction of talkies, talkies,” he says. “Part of that was because there was a fear that it would replace all those musicians.”

And while talkies haven’t eliminated the need for a musician to make music that plays during a movie, there’s now “one person who can play once and listen a million times,” he says.

“The musician still plays the piano like he did 100 years ago,” he says. “But today, one person is doing the work that hundreds of people used to do.” A recent analysis by Goldman Sachs found that 300 million jobs worldwide could be lost to generative AI.

Generative AI could also have some positive impacts in the workplace.

“I keep in mind that academics have to write grants all the time,” Benanav gives as an example. These can be formulaic and would take much less time with the help of a machine. In programming, it helps engineers “write basic outlines of code, or sometimes entire sections of code,” he says.

Also, “typically, new jobs are created that just didn’t exist,” says Koenig of this type of change.

In fact, new jobs have already been created. Freelancer platform Fiverr has had many new generative AI-oriented jobs popping up on its site since the start of 2023, including AI consultant and AI video editor. ZipRecruiter has also found new full-time positions such as AI Creative Director and AI Researcher.

Regardless of what changes are currently taking place in the workforce and what the job market will look like down the road, it’s important to remember that “the real driver of this is profit,” says Resnikoff. Businesses have an incentive to prioritize their bottom line for a variety of reasons, and sometimes that means reducing labor costs.

“The process that technology usually encourages is for the machine to take over, right?” says Resnikoff. “That’s the story they’re telling.” Ultimately, however, it is the leaders of their respective workforces who make the decision to create lower-paying jobs or to eliminate jobs altogether.

In that case, and given all the different possibilities, Benanav would remind workers that “the future is open”.

“The job could get better or worse,” he says, “and you should fight to create the conditions under which it gets better.”

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Robert Wilson

Business & economics analyst. Breaking down intricate financial trends for informed decision-making.

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