The modern elevator was invented in the early 1800s in London and was a steam-powered technological death trap. Not until the mid-1800s did the elevator become safer when brakes were installed and a fail-safe system was in place to catch the elevator if the cables snapped – which they did on occasion.
As elevators became more available in high-rise buildings, there arose a need to hire Elevator Operators to manually engage the lift to go up and down and stop at the proper place. And yes, there was a big difference between a good Operator and a bad one at ensuring passengers got a smooth ride. And yes, finding good talent was tough back then, too.
By the early/mid-1900s, driverless elevators were introduced to mixed reactions as the public was too scared and confused to use them – they were waiting for the Operator to appear.
In 1945, Elevator Operators in New York staged a major strike to protest the installation of automated elevators. Their strike affected over 1 million office workers as their fear of a driverless elevator kept them from getting to work.
Although today there are still a few buildings with an Elevator Operator, the obsolescence of the occupation is a precautionary tale regarding how advancements in technology and automation led to the near extinction of an important and essential job.
Ring. Ring. “Hello, whaddaya want? Yeah yeah, hold your horses, I’ll get to ya soon enough.”
In 1876, the first Telephone Operators tasked with manually connecting phone calls from one person to another were teenage boys. Unfortunately, when left unmanaged these teenage boys would engage in tomfoolery and foul language when engaging with callers.
Soon enough, these teenage boys were replaced with women operators as they were considered to be more kind and gentle with their callers. By the 1940s, automation again led to a dramatic reduction in the workforce for Operators as the automatic dialing system routed most of the local calls automatically. Long distance dialing still required manual intervention from an Operator, therefore keeping the occupation alive for another 50 years.
However, the inevitable would occur, and by the late 1990s the need for Telephone Operators to route any type of call via long-distance or collect calling had virtually disappeared … and the history of rude teenaged-boy Operators with it.
It took well over 100 years for two critical jobs to disappear. That’s not very long when you consider a lifetime of future generations of unskilled workers who need to evolve and adapt to new skills if they are to remain in the workforce.
There are early signs today as well, with more companies looking to replace automatable jobs with more efficient and cost-effective systems and services.
The growth in artificial intelligence and robotics will perhaps drive many of today’s unskilled to semi-skilled jobs into near extinction, just like the Elevator and Telephone Operators.
People were at first afraid to board a driverless elevator; will they be afraid to board a driverless car?
That’s why Taxi Driver has made it to our Top 10 Most-Endangered Job Species. Take a look at our list and tell us whether you agree these jobs are likely to be unplugged and on an express elevator to the basement.
About the author: Louis Vong is a senior thought leader at TMP Worldwide and leads digital brand strategy for some of the agency’s largest global clients. His passion for technology and all things design is rivaled only by his love for Bob Ross paraphernalia.