The Hidden Cost of Innovation

Photo by Knowledge at Warton

By: Carter Speelman

The prospect of finding work upon the completion of a degree program at a college or university has always been a daunting task, but I propose that it is getting harder and harder each year. The state of the economy at the time of graduation has always been a leading factor in whether or not jobs are available for recent grads. In 2024, there is a new threat looming, perhaps even greater in magnitude, when it comes to finding work after college: will the job I want even exist in 10 years?

2023 was a record year (upperclassmen should be ecstatic)—the economy appears to be in good health. The stock market bounced back from its 2022 losses and the S&P 500 gained a whopping 24.2%. Yet, somehow, leading companies like Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Meta cut tens of thousands of jobs. In an email from Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai after announcing a 12,000-employee layoff, he wrote,“I am confident about the huge opportunity in front of us thanks to the strength of our mission, the value of our products and services, and our early investments in AI. To fully capture it, we’ll need to make tough choices.” 

I understand the need to invest capital into emerging technology, especially being a technology company, but are mass layoffs in favor of replacing workers with spending on AI really part of the mission for Google as Mr. Pichai says? If so, what does that say about Google and this industry as a whole? It’s worth noting that this company had to cut 12,000 jobs to reduce spending in the same year it had a 58% return on its stock.

Last week I was reading an article in the New York Times that sparked my interest on this topic regarding the shutting down of an old British steel mill. Located in Port Talbot, Wales, it’s the largest steel mill in the U.K. and a large employer in the local area. Last week, they announced they would begin shutting down two of their old blast furnaces, in favor of one more environmentally friendly electrical furnace. It would come at the cost of up to 2,800 of the plant’s 4,000 workers losing their jobs, as the new equipment requires much less manpower. 

According to a recent study completed by the Steel Manufacturers Association, the specific style of electric furnace to be implemented at Port Talbot reduces carbon emissions by between 74-78%. Layoffs aren’t a pleasant endeavor and rarely feel justified, but in this case, the reduction in carbon emissions is not nominal, it will be a large step in the right direction, but again, at the expense of 2,800 families who just lost an income. Where is the line drawn? Because it is in the name of a cleaner economy, is Tata’s decision justified? What if it was 10,000 jobs?

In the last few years, more American companies than I can count have made pledges to “reduce their carbon footprint by 50% by 2030”, or to be “carbon emission-free by 2050”, these are just examples, but you’ve seen the pledges and commitments put out by corporations. Often, these announcements are cause for excitement as corporate America begins to embrace or at least appears to embrace the need to be environmentally conscious. Although greener production and revolutionary new technology like AI are two very different movements, they pose a similar threat that we far too easily dismiss. With both movements, in order to keep progressing in our society, we will face hard decisions that will likely be made in favor of innovation and pushing onward, which will come at the cost of lost jobs and families losing primary incomes. At which point does the loss of jobs go from unfortunate collateral damage that comes with the territory of advancement of society, to more than that? It is inevitable that some jobs will be rendered useless due to changing technology, and to some degree, we need that to happen in order to keep evolving as a civilization.

My grandfather grew up in Evergreen Park, on the south side of Chicago, in the 1940s and ‘50s. He recounts to me his father driving an ice truck in the summer, and a coal truck in the winter. It is safe to say that over half a century later the ice delivery industry no longer exists, given the average American doesn’t have an ice box, but rather, a refrigerator. It is also not outlandish to claim that society is better off now, given the transition to new technologies as such. A refrigerator does need electricity to operate, however, the environmental impact of running a refrigerator is a better alternative than a gas-guzzling truck, delivering its contents on a weekly route. Needless to say, if you connect the dots, my great-grandfather didn’t drive an ice truck for much longer after the refrigerator became commonplace in every American kitchen. Whether or not the loss of my great-grandfather’s job driving an ice truck and the entire loss of an industry is justified is not my choice to make, but I will go out on a limb and assume most individuals would say that it was for the betterment of society that we no longer keep items cool using the ice box and ice delivery system of the past.

Job and industry turnovers are inescapable. Look at how many coal miners there are in the US today versus 100 years ago. Our world is ever-changing, and with that, new industries will rise and fall constantly. Some jobs that exist now will be eradicated within a matter of years due to greener production and technological advancements. There is a difference between the two, however, and within both, there are so many variables that complicate every case. Discerning whether jobs are lost in the name of advancing society and using innovation to create a more sustainable planet versus jobs that are lost in the name of growing a bottom line is a difficult task. It is up to us to hold those in positions of authority accountable for the latter.


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