The technology-driven automation currently taking place is different from that of the past, Ford says. When agriculture became mechanized, millions of people were displaced from farm labor -- but those people eventually found jobs in factories, where they were able to do another type of routine work. When manufacturing jobs began to disappear, they moved to the service sector and more routine work.
"What we face today is technology that's going to come in and do all the routine work everywhere, across the board," Ford says. "Historically, there haven't been a lot of people who've done creative work, so it's unclear whether most people can make that transition or -- even if they can -- that there will be enough jobs for them."
The typical worker will frequently be left worse off by technological advances, pushed into lower-paying jobs that machines cannot do such as home health care, cleaning, fixing cars, or anything that needs both physical and problem-solving skills.
Advice to retrain and learn new skills may prove of little use in this new economy. Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times this week, says that until recently the conventional wisdom held that:
modern technology was raising the demand for highly educated workers while reducing the demand for less educated workers. And the solution was more education. ... Today, however, a much darker picture of the effects of technology on labor is emerging. In this picture, highly educated workers are as likely as less educated workers to find themselves displaced and devalued, and pushing for more education may create as many problems as it solves. ... Education, then, is no longer the answer to rising inequality, if it ever was.
Ford concurs: "Some people are simply not going to find jobs even if they do everything right. ... Just acquiring skills in and of itself is no defense against automation. Machines are really, really good at learning skills. [Automation] in future is not going to impact just people who are unskilled or are not educated. It's going to be much broader."
McAfee, associate director of the MIT Center for Digital Business at the Sloan School of Management, doesn't see the recently vanished jobs coming back. Instead, the pressure on employment and the resulting inequalities will only get worse as digital technologies -- powered by "enough computing power, data, and geeks" -- continue their exponential advances.
None of which bodes well for the middle class, unless the new technologies can once again lead to new sources of employment in fields not even imagined yet.
This article, "Robots are coming to take your job," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.