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Fears of robots replacing humans are overblown. A diverse and adaptable economy is key to keeping Montgomery County competitive and equitable.

Busy office with men and women working at desksThere has been no shortage of foreboding warnings in the media about the economic and social dangers posed by robots and artificial intelligence technologies. With titles like “The Robots are Coming,” “The Rise of the Robots” and “The Robocalypse,” this coverage has sparked collective anxiety over the future of work and whether human labor will eventually be displaced in an automated economy.

However, technology is not destiny. With thoughtful, proactive planning, the harmful consequences of 21st century technology can be avoided and opportunities for increasing fulfillment at work, income equity and quality of life can be seized.

This optimistic and measured outlook is being adopted by Montgomery Planning as it embarks on Thrive Montgomery 2050, which considers how we will live, work and play in the county for the next 30 years.

In fact, scholars, practitioners and workers themselves are increasingly recognizing that fears of imminent, widespread technologically driven unemployment may be overblown. Furthermore, the quantity of jobs available may not be the most pressing issue when it comes to future prosperity. Rather, improving the quality of jobs—now and in the future—is becoming a priority. Even if there are enough jobs to go around, people’s lives won’t improve if these jobs are unstable, require long commutes or don’t pay a living wage (see the MIT Work of the Future report).

Montgomery County has been on the leading edge of technology for several decades and has generated important innovations in fields such as life sciences and information technology. The county has also been insulated from the effects of earlier rounds of automation and trade, because it has not historically been a hub for the industries hardest hit by large-scale roboticization and globalization effects, such as automotive manufacturing (see Yale School of Management discussion of article about trade and technology impacts on manufacturing). Its major industries (shown below) are indicative of this advantage.

Having strong advantages in computer systems design, research and development, and consulting and engineering services should place Montgomery County in an advantageous position as it confronts the work of the future.

However, there are still reasons for concern. The divide is widening between the “haves”—those who develop new technology or whose work is complemented by it—and the “have nots”—those whose work is negatively impacted or replaced by technology. Artificial intelligence will soon begin to impact areas that have so far remained relatively untouched by it, like retail sales and logistics (i.e. driving, delivery and warehousing).

While some jobs may disappear, others will simply change. Indeed, many of the industries listed above have occupations within them that are already becoming increasingly “digitalized,” meaning that tasks and duties are changing due to the introduction of software, apps, devices and other digital tools, according to a recent Brookings Institution report.

Nurse working with technology in operating roomSome workers may lack the training or skills to access or maintain these jobs, leading to growth in minimally digitalized occupations like personal services (for example, massage therapy, home health care or landscaping). However, this shift in the workforce could negatively impact wages and working conditions in these occupations as more people seek opportunities in them (see Federal Reserve Bank of New York report). While the exact nature of these changes is impossible to predict, one goal of Thrive Montgomery 2050 is to maximize opportunities for all residents and workers to take advantage of a changing economy and minimize its potentially polarizing effects.

The chart below displays the Gini index, which measures inequality for household income (a score of “1” indicates total inequality, where one household has all the income, and “0” indicates total equality, where all income is shared equally; higher scores are “worse” than lower scores). Like most places (see Washington Post article about rising inequality), Montgomery County’s Gini index has risen since 2010. Although Montgomery’s Gini index—and level of income inequality—remains lower than that of the nation overall and the District of Columbia, it remains higher than that of the state of Maryland, neighboring Fairfax County, VA, and the Washington, DC metropolitan statistical area (including parts of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia).

Of course, technology is not the only reason for the changing landscape of work. Globalization, and policy at all levels of government also play roles. While we cannot anticipate exactly how technology will progress—or exactly how its progress will impact employment—we can work to ensure that Montgomery County’s economy is flexible and adaptable enough to absorb these changes. This resiliency means fostering a diverse economy with quality employment options that Montgomery County residents can easily access.

However, we need your help to envision and create this economy. We will be asking for your input on these issues as we embark on Thrive Montgomery 2050 Here are some of our questions:

  • Has your economic situation been impacted by technology?
  • Have the impacts been positive or negative (or both)?
  • Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the work of the future?
  • How can Montgomery County continue in its role as a leading innovator and ensure that residents share equitably in the fruits of this innovation?

Your answers will provide planners with feedback to help create the economic future of Montgomery County. The County’s economy is well-positioned to take advantage of current and future technologies, but we need to ensure that a brisk pace of innovation in all industries continues, and that County residents and workers are not left behind.

Please direct your answers to these questions, as well as any other feedback about technology and the economy, to Ben Kraft, Research and Special Projects Planner, at Benjamin.Kraft@MontgomeryPlanning.org or 301-495-4563.

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