Displacing Workers With Robots

February 3rd, 2013

The Times continues its focus on how the proliferation of robots in industry will displace workers. This article acknowledges the pros of automation, but stresses the likely cons.

In hindsight, historical fears of technological change look foolish, given that automation has increased living standards and rendered our workweeks both safer and shorter. In 1900, when nearly half the American labor force was employed in backbreaking agriculture, the typical worker logged 2,300 hours a year, according to Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University. Today that number is 1,800. (If you believe “The Jetsons,” by 2062 we’ll be working only two hours a week; Keynes had similar forecasts.)

That said, creative destruction is undoubtedly painful. Historically, the children of displaced workers have benefited from mechanization, but the displaced workers themselves have often been permanently passé.

“Every invention ever made caused some people to lose jobs,” says Mr. Mokyr. “In a good society, when this happens, they put you out to pasture and give you a golf club and a condo in Florida. In a bad society, they put you on the dole, so you have just enough not to starve, but that’s about it.”

And many economists today believe the transition will be even more difficult this time around.

Who will be the only people saved? That’s easy. Those with tenure.

An optimist like Mr. Mokyr might note that the economy is actually becoming unusually good at scaling up retraining programs just as we need them most. The technological shocks that have affected manufacturing and office administration, after all, are now infiltrating education: with online courses, an expert can teach 60,000 students at a time rather than the 60 Mr. Mokyr lectured on Tuesday.

Mr. Mokyr is not too worried about what this will mean for his own livelihood, despite the mass layoffs that similar cybernetic developments have wrought over every other industry he has studied.

“I can be displaced by technology, but they still can’t fire me,” he says. “I have tenure.”