That automation will take jobs is a workforce constant. For instance, in 1949 there were 182,500 people employed as telephone operators. It was the peak year. But by last year the number of operators employed by wired carriers had declined to 2,170, according to federal labor data.
Something similar is on the verge of taking place in back-office IT services jobs, due to automation improvements, with dramatic job cutbacks being forecast, according to a survey done of representatives from about 170 global sourcing firms. This includes the IT services industry.
Nearly a third of those surveyed said they expect job cuts of 25% or higher of their current workforces by 2020, according to a conference poll by the Information Services Group (ISG), a research and advisory services firm.
In this survey, 23% predicted workforce cuts of 15% to 25%, and some 28% said the cuts would range from 5% to 15%. Only 5% of respondents said current employment levels will grow.
Rob Brindley, a director at ISG, said improvements in automation, as well as continuing improvements in the capabilities of people, are bringing higher reliability and stability to IT systems, reducing calls for support. "Automation is going to be working be working in the background, evaluating events and incidents and resolving them before there is a customer impact," said Brindley.
There also tools being developed, such as IPsoft's Amelia cognitive engine, that an also be used to either augment or replace workers as time goes on.
The decline in telephone operator jobs has been offset by employment growth in new industries. It's not clear whether the jobs replaced by automation in the years ahead will be offset by growth in new technology areas. While demand is expected to increase for higher-skill jobs, there could be fewer overall jobs.
In a 1955 Congressional hearing on "Automation and Technological Change" (PDF) lawmakers and experts discussed the impact of automation on the workforce, and the decline of some types of jobs.
"I see only benefits in the long run," said Dr. Vannevar Bush, president of the Carnegie Institution, regarding automation.
"It is a different story when it comes to the individual. There may be an overall public benefit in a particular move, and at the same time distress and hardship for individuals," said Bush.