The Future of Work

Men, youth, and less educated workers will face challenges from automation

Societies in wealthier nations for several decades have been discussing the replacement of workers by robots and machines. It now seems quaint to recall, from perhaps 15 years ago, the shock expressed at those grocery chains who first adopted use of “self-checkouts.” My local supermarket has recently installed another cluster of these, such that “self-checkouts” now outnumber regular lanes staffed by real humans. As with all technological changes, we get used to the new normal.

Assessments of the current lot of low-skilled workers and dire predictions of the future of whole professions occasionally stir up concern, but one hopes that human ingenuity will solve our problems much as they have in the past. Recent headlines proclaimed, for example, that workers at Microsoft Japan tried a four-day workweek and the result was a productivity boost of 40%. Of course altering the workweek doesn’t necessarily translate into jobs for the low-skilled unemployed. But it does show that trying new and previously scoffed-at ideas can lead to surprising results. On the bright side, a four-day workweek may be of great relief to children in homes where both parents work.

Earlier this year the Brookings Institution issued a report called “Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How Machines are affecting people and places”; a link is provided below. The Brookings analysts together keep a level head and suggest that “automation will bring neither apocalypse nor utopia.” Their report looks back to 1980 and forward to 2030, and discusses “general rules that seem to govern the interaction of machines and workers.” Some highlights:

– “Tech possibility is not the same as tech reality.” (This is your reassurance that service professionals, like waiters and retail salesmen, aren’t going away yet. First picture the mistakes made by humans in these areas, then picture how much worse a robot would be.)

– “Routine” physical and cognitive tasks in the areas of office administration, production, transportation, and food preparation will be the most vulnerable to replacement by machines.

– Overall, smaller, more rural communities seem significantly more exposed to the down-side of automation, in the past and future. (To a great extent this has driven the middle-American opioid epidemic.)

– Men, youth, and less educated workers all appear likely to face more acute challenges from automation in the coming years.

The link:

Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How machines are affecting people and places


Barbara E. Rose is Web Editor of the NOR.

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