Do robots replace (human) jobs? – a further update on imaginings of automation

In November I reviewed some literature concerning the narratives of ‘robots’ ‘destroying’ jobs, replacing workers and maybe driving down wages. I showed in that blogpost how different articles contradicted one another about the destruction or creation of jobs/work through automation and argued we probably need to think about this as a discourse, heavy with technological determinisms (following Wyatt) and open to social scientific critique. I went on to look at other stories about automation that emerged in the subsequent five or six months in April and in particular the ways that jobs are becoming ‘unbundled’, the various parts of a job role are being split apart.

In a post earlier today I discussed some of these issues further in relation to the ways these sorts of arguments are storied, and the forms of authority they acquire through the use of statistics. This all goes towards constituting the forms of imagination I discussed in the earlier blogposts – it’s all a part of what I’ve been calling, to make sense of things for myself, a sort of ‘automative imagination’.

I have also today seen an interesting, if lengthy, argument by Mishel and Bivens, of the Economic Policy Institute (considered to be a ‘liberal’ think tank), arguing against some of the recent “robot apocalypse” economic research (in particular showing the widespread misreading of the piece by Acemoglu and Restrepo I highlighted back in April) and the media narratives built around such research:

What is remarkable about this media narrative is that there is a strong desire to believe it despite so little evidence to support these claims. There clearly are serious problems in the labor market that have suppressed job and wage growth for far too long; but these problems have their roots in intentional policy decisions regarding globalization, collective bargaining, labor standards, and unemployment levels, not technology.

This report highlights the paucity of the evidence behind the alleged robot apocalypse, particularly as mischaracterized in the media coverage of the 2017 Acemoglu and Restrepo (A&R) report. Yes, automation has led to job displacements in particular occupations and industries in the past, but there is no basis for claiming that automation has led–or will lead–to increased joblessness, unemployment, or wage stagnation overall. We argue that the current excessive media attention to robots and automation destroying the jobs of the past and leaving us jobless in the future is a distraction from the main issues that need to be addressed: the poor wage growth and inequality caused by policies that have shifted economic power away from low- and moderate-wage workers. It is also the case that, as Atkinson and Wu (2017) argue, our productivity growth is too low, not too high.


What is remarkable about the automation narrative is that any research on robots or technology feeds it, even if the bottom-line findings of the research do not validate any part of it. The most recent example is the new research by Acemoglu and Restrepo (2017a) on the impact of robots on employment and wages. Here is how The New York Times wrote about this research:

The paper adds to the evidence that automation, more than other factors like trade and offshoring that President Trump campaigned on, has been the bigger long-term threat to blue-collar jobs. The researchers said the findings–”large and robust negative effects of robots on employment and wages”–remained strong even after controlling for imports, offshoring, software that displaces jobs, worker demographics and the type of industry. (Miller 2017)

The EPI article is quite long so I won’t attempt to abridge it here, but the authors do provide some “key findings”, which I do want to reproduce here, see below. I recommend reading the full article though, its an interesting read for anyone who is remotely interested in automation, the nature of work, and the narratives of technology innovation.

Key findings

In this paper we make the following points:

Acemoglu and Restrepo’s new research does not show large and negative effects on overall employment stemming from automation.

  • A&R’s methodology delivers high-quality local estimates of the impact of one sliver of automation (literally looking just at robots). But their translation of these high-quality local estimates (for “commuting zones”) into national effects relies on stylized and largely unrealistic assumptions.
  • Even if one takes the unreliable simulated (not estimated) national effects as given, they are small (40,000 jobs lost each year) relative to any reasonable benchmark. For example, our analysis shows that their estimated job losses from the “China trade shock” are roughly four times as large as their estimated job losses from growing robot adoption in the 2000s.
  • While A&R’s report shows that “robots” are negatively correlated with employment growth across commuting zones, it finds that all other indicators of automation (nonrobot IT investment) are positively correlated or neutral with regard to employment. So even if robots displace some jobs in a given commuting zone, other automation (which presumably dwarfs robot automation in the scale of investment) creates many more jobs. It is curious that coverage of the A&R report ignores this major finding, especially since it essentially repudiates what has been the conventional wisdom for decades–that automation has hurt job growth (at least for less-credentialed Americans).
  • The A&R results do not prove that automation will lead to joblessness in the future or overturn previous evidence that automation writ large has not led to higher aggregate unemployment.

Technological change and automation have not been the main forces driving the wage stagnation and inequality besieging working-class Americans.

  • There is no historical correlation between increases in automation broadly defined and wage stagnation or increasing inequality. Automation–the implementation of new technologies as capital equipment or software replace human labor in the workplace–has been an ongoing feature of our economy for decades. It cannot explain why median wages stagnated in some periods and grew in others, or why wage inequality grew in some periods and shrank in others.
    • Indicators of automation increased rapidly in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, a period that saw the best across-the-board wage growth for American workers in a generation.
    • Indicators of automation fell during two periods of stagnant (or worse) wage growth: from 1973 to 1995 and from 2002 to the present. In these periods, inequality grew as wage growth for the richest Americans far outpaced wage growth of everyone else.
    • During the long period of shared wage growth from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s (shared because all workers’ wages grew at roughly the same pace), indicators of automation also increased rapidly.
  • There is no evidence that automation-driven occupational employment “polarization” has occurred in recent years, and thus no proof it has caused recent wage inequality or wage stagnation.
    • First, numerous studies have documented that there was no occupational employment polarization–in which employment expands in higher-wage and lower-wage occupations while hollowing out in the middle–in the 2000s. Employment has primarily expanded in the lowest-wage occupations. Yet wage inequality between the top and the middle has risen rapidly since 2000.
    • Second, wage inequality overwhelmingly occurs between workers within an occupation, not between workers in different occupations. So even if occupational employment polarization had occurred, it could not explain the growth of wage stagnation or inequality.
  • There is no evidence of an upsurge in automation in the last 10 to 15 years that has affected overall joblessness. The evidence indicates automation has slowed. Trends in productivity, capital investment, information equipment investment, and software investment suggest that automation has decelerated in the last 10 or so years. Also, the rate of shifts in occupational employment patterns has been slower in the 2000s than in any period since 1940. Therefore, there is no empirical support for the prominent notion that automation is currently accelerating exponentially and leading to a robot apocalypse.

The fact that robots have displaced some jobs in particular industries and occupations does not mean that automation has or will lead to increased overall joblessness. 

  • As noted above, data showing a recent deceleration in automation suggest that there is no footprint of an automation surge that can be expected to accelerate in the near future.
  • Technological change and automation absolutely can, and have, displaced particular workers in particular economic sectors. But technology and automation also create dynamics (for example, falling relative prices of goods and services produced with fewer workers) that help create jobs in other sectors. And even when automation’s job-generating and job-displacing forces don’t balance out, government policy can largely ensure that automation does not lead to rising overall unemployment.
    • The narrative that automation creates joblessness is inconsistent with the fact that we had substantial and ongoing automation for many decades but did not have continuously rising unemployment. And the fall in unemployment from 10 percent to below 5 percent since 2010 is inconsistent with the claim that surging automation is generating greater unemployment.
    • As noted above, fluctuations in the pace of technological change have been associated with both good and bad labor market outcomes. So there is no reason to deduce that we should fear robots.

The American labor market has plenty of problems keeping it from working well for most Americans, and these are the problems that should occupy our attention.

  • The problems afflicting American workers include the failure to secure genuine full employment through macroeconomic policy and the intentional policy assault on the bargaining power of low- and middle-wage workers; these are the causes of wage stagnation and rising inequality. Solving these actually existing problems should take precedence over worrying about hypothetical future effects of automation.

See the full article “The zombie robot argument lurches on” on the EPI website.

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