At a Future of Work forum hosted at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, experts weighed in and largely agreed that “the robots aren’t out to steal our jobs.” Economists in attendance said fears that swift developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation would leave Americans jobless are substantially inflated.
“When predicting future labor market outcomes, it is important to consider both sides of the supply and demand equation,” says Hal Varian, founding dean of the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. Most reports typically relay how advancing technology and automation will decrease demand for labor by replacing workers with machines. However, according to Varian, “demographic trends that point to a substantial decrease in the supply of labor are potentially larger in magnitude.” This points to a trend that may supersede automation as a concern; a declining labor force participation rate.
There is additional impact to the availability of skilled labor according to David Autor, Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Autor states that today’s workforce is sharply divided by levels of education. Those who have not gone beyond high school are affected the most by long-term changes in the economy. As Autor stated in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, semi-skilled or unskilled workers will by far be the hardest hit by advances in automation. Autor proposes that now is an important time to be, “young and educated.”
Additionally, those without a specific skill or trade will find it the most challenging to fight automation as repetitive and mundane jobs are the first to succumb to the technological advances. As Varian confidently states, “Automation doesn’t eliminate jobs. Automation eliminates dull, tedious, and repetitive tasks. If you automate all the tasks, you remove the job.”
Concerns regarding automation have existed since the 1960s. Time Magazine published an article on February 24, 1961 titled, “The Automation Jobless.” Automation has been a red herring for decades, but many global and domestic economists agree that enhanced automation is rarely a cause for concern. Most hypothesize that while automation does replace jobs, it simultaneously creates jobs.
So how do employers handle conversations with employees that may have job security concerns? It may be best to recall the remarks of economist, computer scientist, and Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, who wrote at the time of the automation anxiety of the 1960s, “Insofar as they are economic problems at all, the world’s problems in this generation and the next are problems of scarcity, not of intolerable abundance. The boogeyman of automation consumes worrying capacity that should be saved for real problems . . .”