Reexamining claims about automation and labor displacement
Current UBI discussions emerged out of concerns over the role of human beings in a machine-dominated labor market. In 2013, a paper by Oxford University professors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne claimed that 47% of US jobs were at risk of long term automation. The statistic circulated widely, prompting fears of widespread unemployment. The debate over these predictions is complex: those who deny any threat from automation often point to near-full employment, and risk overlooking the proliferation of low-paying and precarious jobs; while those who forecast mass unemployment risk assuming that technological development necessarily leads to labor displacement.
In a 2018 paper, legal scholar BRISHEN ROGERS argues that fears of a robot takeover misapprehend the real dynamics in the labor market:
"In a period of technological upswing, with companies rapidly installing robotics and other automation devices, we would also see significant increases in labor productivity. In fact, productivity growth has recently been the slowest as at any time since World War II. What’s more, productivity change in the manufacturing sector—where automation is easiest—has been especially tepid lately, at 0.7 percent over the last decade. On a related note, levels of 'occupational churn,' or the net creation of jobs in growing occupations and loss of jobs in declining occupations, are also at historic lows.
Even more striking, if firms expected artificial intelligence to be a major source of productivity in the near future, they would surely be investing in information technology and intellectual property. But they aren’t. Computers and software constituted 13.5 percent of the value of companies’ investments from 2000-2007, as the internet was coming into wide use. Over the last decade, that rate declined to 4.8 percent. These differences strongly suggest that there is nothing inevitable about precarious work or economic inequality. Hotel work, food services, janitorial work, and retail work have become precarious over the past twenty years because companies in those sectors forcibly de-unionized and/or 'fissured' away their workers to subcontractors or franchisors, thereby denying them effective access to many legal rights."
Link to the paper.
- An MIT Technology Review from 2018 surveyed the predictions of every paper published on job losses due to automation. The results: "There is really only one meaningful conclusion: we have no idea how many jobs will actually be lost to the march of technological progress." Link.
- "...even those occupations which are contracting due to technological change will continue to provide plenty of job openings over the next two decades. The challenge lies in improving the quality of these jobs going forward." Paul Osterman anticipates Rogers' arguments in a column from 2017. Link.
- Another recent paper by Brishen Rogers (to which we previously linked) continues the thread: "Based on a detailed review of the capacities of existing technologies, automation is not a major threat to workers today, and it will not likely be a major threat anytime soon." Link.
- Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo published two papers on automation and employment: the first uses industry level data to observe changes in the task content of production. The second argues that automation has been primarily concerned with reducing the need for labor, with insufficient attention being paid to socially productive investment. Link to the first, link to the second.
- Frank Levy on the relationship between automation-induced job losses and the rebirth of populist politics. Link.
- From EconFIP, a research brief on automation, AI, and the labor share. Link.