Central to the debate over automation and the future of work is the fear that robots and artificial intelligence will take over so much of the work people currently do that there will be no jobs left for human beings. Some believe we may be looking at a not-too-distant future of mass structural unemployment due to automation, while the more optimistic crowd contends that the current wave of automation will ultimately create more jobs than it destroys, just as the steam engine, the automobile, and the computer did in past periods of technological change. Political scientist Ruy Teixeira is in the second camp, arguing at Vox that the fears of a post-human workforce don’t square with the economic data:
If [futurist Martin] Ford’s “rise of the robots” were taking place, we would be seeing very rapid productivity increases today (fewer workers, larger output). We’re not. Instead, productivity increases have been abominably slow in recent years — a mere 1.3 percent per year, just over a third of the rate at the end of the last century.
Another indicator that the robots are gaining on us would be an exceptionally high rate of “occupational churn,” the rate at which the job structure is changing as some occupations decline and others grow. In a study of Census data going back to 1850, economists Robert Atkinson and John Wu found instead that the rate of churn in recent decades has been exceptionally slow — slower, in fact, than at any other period in their study.
Greg Ip made a similar point in the Wall Street Journal last month, also pointing to the slowdown in productivity and arguing that, if anything, robots aren’t taking over enough of our jobs. “Instead of worrying about robots destroying jobs,” Ip wrote, “business leaders need to figure out how to use them more, especially in low-productivity sectors.”
In these pieces, Teixeira and Ip write to dispel the “jobless future” hypothesis and do so quite effectively. Yes, this same debate occurred in the 1950s and yet we’re still here. But what makes this time different—and indeed it is different—is that technological change tends to proceed at an exponential rate, and we are reaching a point in which new technologies are rapidly making entire industries redundant.
This quality of rapid change cannot be said about people, and this includes our skills, our ability to adapt, and our willingness to change social and political norms. The difference in the speed of change is what makes this threat of a jobless future so real, even if productivity growth remains incremental.