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The laundress rule of job forecasting

After Fisher's invention, demand for professional laundresses plunged. Chart: Michael Osborne's Twitter account.

In 1910, a Chicago engineer named Alva J. Fisher was awarded a patent for his invention of Thor, an electric-powered washing machine, and forever made fools of prior bets on the job prospects of professional clothes launderers.

This history came to mind Tuesday for Michael Osborne, an Oxford economist and co-author of perhaps the most-cited contemporary paper on the future of work.

Why it matters: Osborne suggests it shows why forecasts of the jobs future — many of them couched in ultra-certain terms — merit scrutiny.

  • In a tweet, Osborne argued that — if you rely only on data and trends — you might go dreadfully awry forecasting the future of automation and employment.
  • His proof — the fate of laundresses before and after Thor: "Imagine yourself in 1910, trying to forecast the future prospects for laundresses," Osborne said.

That was by explanation why, in his work, he uses both data and expert forecasts, he says in a prior thread of tweets, also on Tuesday.

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