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Professor Joel Mokyr Discusses the Future of Work with PhD Students

The economic historian’s talk, “Technology and Work: Is the Long Run 
Getting Shorter?” addressed how the workforce might change due to technological advances

Professor Joel Mokyr discusses the debate over whether modern technology will alter or eliminate the nature of work and jobs as we know them.

Throughout history, when technological advancements picked up pace, some people feared the development of dystopian society where robots take over the world and humans become replaced by machines.

That hasn’t happened yet. But in the age of artificial intelligence, will this time be different?

Joel Mokyr, Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history in the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, asked PhD students to consider the future of the global workforce during his talk, “Technology and Work: Is the Long Run Getting Shorter?”

Discussing historical examples and future predictions about how the workforce changes due to technological advances, Mokyr addressed a full crowd on February 11 in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center as part of the Whole-Brain Leadership for PhD Students Seminar Series at Northwestern Engineering.

“We understand if there’s technological changes happening, in the long run, it benefits everybody,” Mokyr said. “But in the short run, we have some people who are being displaced because there is disruption going on.”

For instance, during the Industrial Revolution, those with jobs as nail makers, handloom weavers, and framework knitters were displaced by automation, but new occupations were invented such as railroad engineers, telegraph operators, and electricians.

Mokyr explained how technological advances should not be viewed as threats but opportunities. Automation typically replaces physically challenging work, opening the door for people to be moved to more advanced jobs, he said.

“As political changes happen, what we see is not necessarily workers being kicked out of the system, but many of them are being moved to tasks that are not yet automated,” he said, explaining that technological change moves at a rate where workers can adjust to new jobs.

Mokyr’s talk is part of the PhD Seminar Series which features scholars from outside the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science to introduce students to various disciplines such as art, theatre, economics, law, and philosophy. The series, which has four remaining lectures, is part of the Whole-Brain Engineering Initiative.

“The idea is what can we can we offer to broaden your viewpoint,” said Dean Julio M. Ottino. 
“Joel Mokyr is probably the foremost economic historian in the country. We are really lucky to be in a university that has such an array of intellectual power, and one of the best examples of this is Joel Mokyr.”

The next speaker in the Whole-Brain Leadership for PhD Students Seminar Series will be Sandy Goldberg, professor of philosophy in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He will give the talk, “What Can We Learn from Disagreement?” on Monday, February 25 at noon.