AI could ‘turn good jobs into bad jobs’ – three labor historians on what the future of work might mean

A person holds a sign as members of SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America East walk a picket line outside the HBO/Amazon offices during National Union Solidarity Day on August 22, 2023 in New York City.

Michael M. Santiago | Getty Images

The Internet has been buzzing about the introduction of generative AI tools like ChatGPT, which gained tens of millions of users within a few months after the fall 2022 release. Google and Microsoft are currently testing their own generative AI tools also. And people are nervous.

More than a third, 37% of adults are pessimistic about AI’s future impact on workers, according to a new Survey Jobs for the Future of 2,204 adults and 25% believe AI will hurt their industry.

Changes in technology at work are nothing new. “Technology changing the way we work is only a story of at least the last 200 years since the Industrial Revolution,” says Aaron Benanavassistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University.

What makes generative AI different, at least in the way it’s been widely discussed, is that it “could affect traditional professional jobs like legal services, financial services, so higher paying jobs,” says Felix Koenig, assistant professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University. And maybe those jobs have been perceived as immune.

A recent analysis from Pew Research Center found that jobs where the most important tasks could be replaced or assisted by AI tended to be “in higher-paying fields where a college education and analytical skills can be a plus.”

History can help predict how generative AI “might actually impact or change work in the future,” says Benanav. Here’s what historians think may be in store for certain roles.

Generative AI can change the nature and parameters of some jobs.

Tools like ChatGPT can be used to take a complex role that one person did and “break that job into five jobs or 10 jobs or even, like, 50 jobs,” says Jason Resnikoff, assistant professor of contemporary history at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Each of these jobs would then require less skill and expertise to complete the larger project.

Resnikoff gives the example of what can happen to writers in the entertainment industry, which has been on strike since May 2, partly due to stalled negotiations on the use of AI in their field.

One option is “we’ll have an assembly line for a script for some TV show,” he says, adding that “AI would produce bad dialogue, and then there would be the dialogue that ends. And then it would produce bad dialogue . premise, and there would be the premise coordinator. You’d have a lot of different writer jobs — none of them writers.” And each of these jobs would theoretically require less skill and pay less than the current job of a writer.

Another option is “you do a two-layer system,” he says.

The top tier would be “a very thin layer of artisanal workers who are super well paid, and they work like a shop,” says Resnikoff. Second-class workers would have “really s—– jobs and jobs that are extremely insecure.” While the first writers can work on every component of a script, “all other TV is written by a machine and all these peons working on it,” he says.

“S—– jobs,” as Resnikoff describes them, are at the heart of the kind of job degradation this direction would result in. Historically, you could break up larger roles that require a lot of skill and expertise into a series of smaller ones. has allowed employers to say, “you’re making so much less,” says Resnikoff, “so we’re going to pay you half of what you were making before.”

Introducing new technology into the process has been a way “to turn good jobs into bad jobs,” he says.

Another possible effect of this new technology is that some jobs will become extinct altogether. Koenig gives the example of what happened after the introduction of talkies, or films with sound, in the 1920s.

Up until that point, movie theaters hired musicians to play live music while the otherwise silent film was shown. “There was actually a big union drive opposing the introduction of talkies, sound films,” he says. “Partly it was because there was a fear that it would replace all these musicians.”

And while talkies didn’t eradicate the need for a musician to make music that would be played during a movie, now you have “a person who can play once and be listened to a million times over,” he says.

“The musician still plays the piano like 100 years ago,” he says. “But it’s just one person now doing the job that used to be done by hundreds of people.” A recent analysis by Goldman Sachs found that globally 300 million jobs could be lost to generative AI.

Generative AI can also have some positive effects in the workplace.

“I think of academics having to write grants all the time,” Benanav says as an example. They can be formal and would take much less time using a machine. In programming, it helps engineers “write up basic outlines of code or sometimes like entire sections of code,” he says.

Plus, “what usually happens is new jobs appear that just wasn’t there,” Koenig says of this kind of change.

Indeed, new jobs have already appeared. Freelance platform Fiverr has seen many new generative AI-oriented gigs appear on their site since its inception in 2023, such as AI consultant and AI video editor. ZipRecruiter has also seen new full-time positions such as creative director in AI and AI researchers.

Whatever changes are made to the workforce now and whatever the labor market looks like afterward, it’s important to remember that “the real driver of this is profit,” says Resnikoff. Companies are encouraged to prioritize their bottom line for a variety of reasons, and sometimes that means reducing labor costs.

“The process that technology tends to promote is that the machine takes over, right?” says Resnikoff. “That’s the story they tell.” But ultimately, it’s really the people in charge of their given workforces who make the decision to create jobs that pay less or to cut jobs altogether.

That being the case, and with all the different possibilities in play, Benanav would remind workers that “the future is open.”

The job can get better or worse, he says, and you should fight to try to create conditions where it will get better.

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