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There’s been some buzz lately around the not-so-new idea that emerging technology is destroying jobs and will ultimately destroy the middle class. Fears about a shrinking job pool are understandable: our economy is still recovering from the recession, and jobs have not returned to pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, technology is replacing some low-skilled jobs. Yet, changes to the job landscape, while they may require some adjustments, are not bad news for the middle class. Instead, advances in innovation and technology promise to make life better for everyone, both professionally and personally.

Just look at the usual trend for tech developments: they start for the wealthy and are later taken up by the middle class. The combine, tractor, car, phone, refrigerator, freezer, microwave, garage door opener, remote control, TV, computer, Internet, and smartphone are now ubiquitous, where once only the wealthy used them. These innovations free us, make us more efficient, break geographic barriers, connect and entertain us. Many create new industries in manufacturing, distribution, marketing, sales, service and content creation. They also cost jobs along the way for stables, horse-drawn carriage makers, farmers, milkmen, ice delivery men, door-to-door salesmen, travel agents and American factory workers. But our lives are better, we are healthier, and we have information, education and entertainment a key stroke away.
Most of today’s jobs are more challenging, more interesting and require more skills than factory or other low-skill work. Today’s jobs range from service positions dealing with people to technical jobs installing computers or managing Internet sites. Health care also offers a wide range of new jobs, as health care innovation lengthens life and we need more people to take care of us. Most of these new jobs are not in dangerous, loud, monotonous factories, but in safe, pleasant, climate-controlled environments.

While we can’t predict fully the jobs of the future, we can expect innovation and technology to provide new benefits that will make our lives better. Virtual, individualized learning tailored to students’ needs will allow our children to learn from the best teachers in the world. We will have fewer car accidents as vehicles become crash avoidant and eventually driverless. 3D printers will evolve to allow quick and local manufacturing. And 3D-printed robots are already emerging that will be able to perform many service functions.

Will the middle class survive this explosion in innovation and new technology and shift to a world where most of our needs and wants can be cheaply met? It may be our understanding of who makes up the middle class that leads to fear about the future.
We decry the fact that too many people today have to hold two or three jobs just to care for a family. But what if things cost less? Technology like 3D printing will bring costs of manufacturing way down and back to the U.S. What if people don’t need to own expensive things like cars? With self-driving vehicles, a ride can be summoned cheaply, as needed. If we define the middle class as anyone with a job, income or business that allows them to be healthy and enjoy life’s basic needs, then advances in technology could create a large, thriving middle class.
Of course, the better question is not whether we will thrive economically, but whether we will be happy. Happiness is not about how much you own. It is about love and family and contributing productively to society. Today, my mother-in-law reminded me that happiness comes from hard work. She survived World War II in Warsaw and watched her sister starve to death. She later became a Polish doctor, and escaped communist Poland to give her daughter – my wife – a better life. She worked for more than 40 years as a dermatologist in Detroit. Now she helps us raise our children. She still takes little time for herself, and lives by the creed that satisfaction comes from helping others. Wouldn’t society benefit from a middle class defined by a volunteer spirit, with those who have more helping those who have less?

In the end, we can’t know what the future holds, but the march of innovation is certain to change what jobs we do. We all may work less. Maybe we’ll have more time for family. We’ll be able to make music, draw or create whatever we want; we’ll be able to pursue sports or any other dream. As the costs of things keep going down, we’ll have more free time, fewer accidents, and be physically healthier. Innovation gives us more choices. It won’t destroy the middle class, but it may very well change the middle class – and everyone else – for the better.

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