That charge has been around since the Luddites started smashing machines during the industrial revolution. A recent study by economists Henry Siu and Nir Jaimovich resurrects the charge in light of the jobless recoveries after the past three recessions. They argue that as automation spreads, jobs involving routine and repetitive tasks are taken over by machinery.
As recently as the mid-1980s, about one in three Americans over the age of 16 was employed in a routine occupation. Currently, that figure stands at one in four. The fact that polarisation [of employment into high-paying non-routine jobs and low-paying service jobs] is occurring should not surprise anyone who understands the influence of robotics and automation on machinists and machine operators in manufacturing. Indeed, the influence of robotics is increasingly being felt on routine occupations in transportation and warehousing. Of equal importance is the disappearance of routine employment in ‘white-collar’ occupations – think bank tellers being replaced by ATMs, or secretarial work being replaced by personal computers and Siri, Apple’s iPhone-integrated ‘intelligent personal assistant’. Thus, all of the per capita employment growth of the past 30 years has either been in ‘non-routine’ occupations located at the high-end of the wage distribution, such as software engineers and economists, or in low-paying jobs, such as service occupations like restaurant waiters and janitors.
The chart at left is from their work, documenting that the last 3 US recessions were marked by jobless recoveries. Click on the graph to see the full size version. You can read Siu and Jaimovich’s summary of their work here. If, as we posted earlier, we’re facing a shrinking workforce, this could be good news. Hmmmm. . . .