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AI is to Desk Jobs as Mechanization is to Agriculture - An AI Revolution

Updated: Feb 27


Juxtaposition of AI Revolution and Agricultural Revolution


Transforming Workforces Across Eras - Agriculture vs Desk Work Today


Workforce evolution and displacement have happened again and again as new innovations have arisen, from the wheelbarrow to the watermill, these changes occurred at a relatively steady rate until the Industrial Revolution. In the early 1900s, perhaps the most important change involving workforce trends happened, with the mechanization of farming. This is a salient example, as it likely bears the most similarity with the seismic shift that will happen for those of us who work at a desk in the coming decade. 


The Industrialization of Agriculture: A Historical Perspective


Agriculture's renaissance was sparked in the early 1900s by the mechanization, specialization, and consolidation of the agricultural sector. Specialized farming replaced diversified farms, leading to monocultures and a focus on efficiency. Combine harvesters and other mechanized tools, majorly reduced the need for human and animal labor, while chemical and pharmaceutical inputs boosted productivity at ecological and public health costs.


This era of industrialization also saw massive consolidation of production, with a shift towards fewer and larger farms. Ultimately, the number of agricultural workers needed to operate these farms dropped by 95% as a percentage of the workforce. In other words, in the United States, farm workers went from 41% of the workforce in 1900 to just 2% by 2000. History shows us that this was a good thing! It freed up these 95% of workers to pursue other vocations that ultimately pushed the world forward. 


AI's Impact on the Modern Workforce


I believe we are seeing a similar shift in the present. An AI Revolution. It’s clear now to even the previous non-believers that AI is reshaping the workforce. According to the World Economic Forum's "The Future of Jobs Report 2020," AI is set to displace 85 million jobs but create 97 million new ones by 2025. There will be some growing pains, as the nature of these new jobs can differ from those being lost. Data entry and processing jobs are now automated, challenging recent graduates and new entrants to the workforce to adapt. Because some entry level positions start with functions that are now automated, entire industries will have to find other work for new entrants, or they will lose their pipeline of new workers.


AI is enhancing roles that require problem-solving, creativity, and empathy, creating unprecedented opportunities. New workers need to use AI tools as an extension of  themselves. Individuals will be producing as much work as entire teams just 10 years ago - much like the impact of the mechanization of farming. 


The parallels between the industrialization of agriculture and the rise of AI are clear. Both revolutions are going to produce step-function changes in workforce distribution. Work, as we know it, for us desk jockeys, is going to be upended, requiring new skills and adaptability. The agricultural revolution led to a more efficient but much smaller workforce, specialized in new farming techniques. Similarly, AI is creating a workforce adept in technology, problem-solving, and creative thinking. But those who fight against it will fall behind. 


Bridging the Skills Gap


Wide-spread literacy in the 19th century disintegrated the millennia long aristocratic hold on knowledge. AI is playing a similar role in bridging the skills gap. Skills are another form of knowledge -- which in olden times were gated by the institution of the apprenticeship, but which are now gated by access to institutions of higher learning, which can be prohibitively expensive. AI-powered learning platforms offer personalized training, making career development accessible to a broader range of people. People can now jump into complex topics, like software engineering, with fewer barriers and more confidence. This democratization of learning is critical in preparing the workforce for this new age.


So What?


The upending of the workforce, driven by AI, mirrors the changes seen in agriculture over a century ago. This current shake-up, like the mechanization of agriculture, will result in a seismic and unpredictable shift in the nature of work itself. As we ride out this transformation, we should heed the lessons of the past: the importance of adaptability, continuous learning, and the potential of technology to make the workforce exponentially more effective. But just like in the past - those who do not adapt, will fall far, far behind. 


References


Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. (n.d.). Industrialization of Agriculture. Food System Primer. Retrieved January 8, 2024, from https://foodsystemprimer.org/production/industrialization-of-agriculture


Bryant, K. (2023, May 31). How AI Will Impact the Next Generation Workforce. Forbes. Retrieved January 8, 2024, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalinabryant/2023/05/31/how-ai-will-impact-the-next-generation-workforce/?sh=41e2b2bd6fae


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