Robots are everywhere in the media again. In February 2017 The New York Times Magazine published an article titled, “Learning to Love Our Robot Co-workers” (Tingley 2017). An article in The Washington Post in March 2017 warned, “We’re So Unprepared for the Robot Apocalypse” (Guo 2017). And, in The Atlantic Derek Thompson (2015, 2016) paved the way in the summer of 2015 with “A World without Work,” followed in October 2016 with an article asking, “When Will Robots Take All the Jobs?”
The automation narrative told by these articles and other coverage is a story in which the inevitable march of technology is destroying jobs and suppressing wages and essentially making large swaths of workers obsolete.
What is remarkable about the automation narrative is that any research on robots or technology feeds fear, even if the bottom-line findings of the research do not validate any part of it.
There are some good new research papers and essays that seek to dismantle the claim of a world without work. One such paper is highlighted below.
In a June 2017 paper, titled: “Does Productivity Growth Threaten Employment?” together with a talk at the European Central Bank (ECB) – “Robocalypse Now?”, co-researchers, David Autor and Anna Salomons, set out 200 years of fears of mass unemployment driven by automation.
Autor and Salomon sought to test for evidence of employment-reducing technological progress. Harnessing data from 19 countries over 37 years, they characterize how productivity growth — an omnibus measure of technological progress — affects employment across industries and countries and, specifically, whether rising productivity ultimately diminishes employment, numerically or as a share of working-age population. They focus on overall productivity growth rather than specific technological innovations because (a) heterogeneity in innovations defies consistent classification and comprehensive measurement, and (b), because productivity growth arguably provides an inclusive measure of technological progress: The findings:
In brief, over the 35+ years of data that we study, we find that productivity growth has been employment-augmenting rather than employment-reducing; that is, it has not threatened employment.
Another way to consider the robots taking all the jobs, at least in the short term, is summed up by the outgoing Chief Executive of General Electric, Jeff Immelt who did not mince words regarding his feelings about the impending automation take over. Speaking at the Viva Teach conference in Paris, Immelt said:
I think this notion that we are all going to be in a room full of robots in five years … and that everything is going to be automated, it’s just BS. It’s not the way the world is going to work.