Although some U.S. manufacturing and service-sector jobs have gone overseas, politicians continue to ignore the outsized effect of automation on job loss, blaming foreign countries and immigrants instead.
The U.S. manufacturing sector actually produces twice as many products as it did half a century ago but does so with one-third fewer workers, mostly because automation has made American factories more efficient. Most experts agree that U.S. jobs aren’t being stolen by other countries, but rather by our own robot overlords. An Oxford University study recently suggested that almost 50% of some jobs will be eliminated or reduced within the next several years due mostly to automation.And as artificial intelligence and robotic hardware continues to advance at a phenomenal pace, there are concerns that the rate of job loss will accelerate.
Thinking in terms of automation is also important because job loss due to automation inordinately affects the most vulnerable among us: low-income communities, ethnic minorities and immigrants who perform unskilled labor.
So Should We Blame Automation Instead?
Not really. Things are a little but more complicated than that.For one thing, automation is nothing new. The Industrial Revolution transformed the way we worked. It allowed for the population to grow from about a billion people to over seven billion in just under a century … and yet all of these billions of new humans still had plenty of work. Why? Because automation created new industries: instead of taking a horse-drawn carriage to your friend’s home, a machine could now drive you there in a fraction of the time. Even though this new automobile industry led to the elimination of some jobs, it led to the creation of many more unprecedented professions such as mechanics, insurance agents and race car drivers.
So even though automation may disrupt some jobs … it’s also likely to create many more new jobs. For instance, robots are making travel to Mars a realistic possibility - an endeavor already resulting in the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs and the creation of multiple new industries.
What this means is that automation doesn’t always eliminate jobs, sometimes it changes them or creates new jobs. Why didn’t the creation of ATM’s result in the mass layoff of bank tellers nationwide? ATM’s had been around for 30 years, yet bank teller jobs continued to increase throughout the past thirty years because bank employees could now focus on additional revenue-generating activities such as selling financial products like mortgages and business loans. The bank could also hire software engineers to create apps and other software to help the bank generate additional revenue.
Which leads me to my third point: oftentimes the jobs automation may one day create are unfathomable at the time automation begins causing initial disruptions in the labor market. For instance, the bank tellers from the 1980’s in the example above couldn’t possibly have imagined a future where bank employees would be coding iOS apps 30 years hence. Likewise, we are similarly hampered when trying to think of the new industries that will come about as a result of automation in the future.
The grievance politicians are attempting to harness isn’t about automation so much as the disruptive transition of old-tech to new-tech jobs and the pain this disruption causes, particularly for older workers or workers in industries vulnerable to this disruption. A 58-year-old service worker or truck driver maybe able to transition to a new-tech job such as coding iOS apps, but it’s unlikely and very difficult. For politicians, the pain caused by this transition is a complicated and unpleasant idea to sell (after all, it’s taken me this long to explain the problem) and its why they focus on the much easier to understand idea of “foreigners are your stealing jobs”.
So What Can You/We Do?
Job loss to automation is a real concern, but neither automation nor foreigners are an existential threat to our economy. The disruption automation will cause can be overcome. No matter who you are,
Vote for candidates who speak intelligently about automation and provide real solutions rather than diatribes about foreigners.
If you are a young person like one of my students, spend your valuable resource (e.g. time) to volunteer, work for, or start an organization that helps retrain middle or lower-income workers. As a young person, you should also consider what kind of job you will have. Over the coming decades your job is likely to change due to automation. Consider how it will change and what you can do to be nimble and transition into a new career.
As a community member, you can encourage the government to create or fund effectiveretraining programs that help those most impacted by automation transition from old-tech jobs to new-tech jobs.
If you are someone of means why not donate to nonprofits that do this work?
If you are a policymaker, elected official or community leader, consider creating programs that provide financial assistance or insurance to workers transitioning from higher to lower wage jobs.
And if you are or will be affected by automation, find the number of growing skill-based retraining programs in your area and enroll over the weekend. It will be worth your time.