Effects of New Technologies on Labor

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David Autor and Anna Salomons, “Is automation labor share-displacing? Productivity growth, employment, and the labor share.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring 2018.

Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, “Robots and jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets.” National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2017.

I have been interested in automation’s effects on the labor force for a long time, especially since reading Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots. Ford raises the specter of a “jobless future” and a massive welfare system to support the unemployed.

Here I discuss two papers representing some of the most serious economic research on this topic.

The questions

To what extent do new technologies really displace human labor and reduce employment? The potential for them to do so is obvious. The mechanization of farming dramatically reduced the number of farm workers. But we can generalize only with caution. In theory, a particular innovation could either produce the same amount with less labor (as when the demand for a product is inelastic, often the case for agricultural products), or produce a larger amount with the same labor (when demand expands along with lower cost, as with many manufactured goods). An innovation can also save labor on one task, but reallocate that labor to a different task in the same industry.

Even if technological advances reduce the labor needed in one industry, that labor can flow into other industries. Economists have suggested several reasons that could happen. One involves the linkages between industries, as one industry’s productivity affects the economic activity of its suppliers and customers. If the computer industry is turning out millions of low-cost computers, that can create jobs in industries that use computers or supply parts for them. Another reason is that a productive industry affects national output, income and aggregate demand. The wealth created in one industry translates into spending on all sorts of goods and services that require human labor.

The point is that technological innovations have both direct effects on local or industry-specific employment, and also indirect effects on aggregate employment in the economy as a whole. The direct effects are more obvious, which may explain why the general public is more aware of job losses than job gains.

A related question is the effect of technology on wages, and therefore on labor’s share of the economic value added by technological change. Do employers reap most of the benefits of innovation, or are workers able to maintain their share of the rewards as productivity rises? Here too, aggregate results could differ from results in the particular industries or localities experiencing the most innovation.

The historical experience

American history tells a story of painful labor displacement in certain times, places and industries; but also a story of new job creation and widely shared benefits of rising productivity. Looking back on a century of technological change from the vantage point of the mid-20th century, economists did not find negative aggregate effects of technology on employment or on labor’s share of the national income. According to Autor and Salomons:

A long-standing body of literature, starting with research by William Baumol (1967), has considered reallocation mechanisms for employment, showing that labor moves from technologically advancing to technologically lagging sectors if the outputs of these sectors are not close substitutes. Further,…such unbalanced productivity growth across sectors can nevertheless yield a balanced growth path for labor and capital shares. Indeed, one of the central stylized facts of modern macroeconomics, immortalized by Nicholas Kaldor (1961), is that during a century of unprecedented technological advancement in transportation, production, and communication, labor’s share of national income remained roughly constant.

Such findings need to be continually replicated, since they might hold only for an economy in a particular place or time. In the 20th century, the success of labor unions in bargaining for higher wages and shorter work weeks was one thing that protected workers from the possible ill effects of labor-saving technologies.

Recent effects of technological change

Autor and Salomons analyze data for OECD countries for the period 1970-2007. As a measure of technological progress, they use the growth in total factor productivity (TFP) over that period.

They find a direct negative impact of productivity growth on employment within the most affected industries. However, they find two main indirect effects that offset the negative impact for the economy as a whole:

First, rising TFP within supplier industries catalyzes strong, offsetting employment gains among their downstream customer industries; and second, TFP growth in each sector contributes to aggregate growth in real value added and hence rising final demand, which in turn spurs further employment growth across all sectors.

To put it most simply, one industry’s productivity may limit its own demand for labor, but its contribution to the national output and income creates employment opportunities elsewhere.

With regard to labor’s share of the economic benefits, the findings are a little different. Here again, the researchers find a direct negative effect within the industries most affected by technological innovation. But in this case, that effect is not offset, for the most part, by more widespread positive effects.

The association between technological change and labor’s declining share varied by decade. Labor’s share actually rose during the 1970s, declined in the 1980s and 90s, and then fell more sharply in the 2000s. The authors mention the possibility that the newest technologies are especially labor-displacing, but reach no definite conclusion. Another possibility is that non-technological factors such as the political weakness of organized labor are more to blame.

The impact of robotics

Autor and Salomons acknowledge that because they used such a general measure of technological change, they couldn’t assess the impact of robotics specifically. They do cite work by Georg Graetz and Guy Michaels that did not find general negative effects of robots on employment or labor share in countries of the European Union. That’s important, since many European countries have gone farther than we have in adopting robots.

The paper by Acemoglu and Restrepo focuses on the United States for the period 1990-2007. (They deliberately ended in 2007 so that the impact of the Great Recession wouldn’t muddy the waters.)

The authors used the definition of robot from the International Federation of Robotics, “an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, and multipurpose [machine].” Over the period in question, robot usage increased from 0.4 to 1.4 per thousand workers. “The automotive industry employs 38 percent of existing industrial robots, followed by the electronics industry (15 percent), plastic and chemicals (10 percent), and metal products (7 percent).”

Adoption of industrial robots has been especially common in Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. As Thomas B. Edsall titled his recent New York Times column, “The Robots Have Descended on Trump Country.”

Acemoglu and Restrepo classified localities–technically “commuter zones”–according to their “exposure” to robotics, based on their levels of employment in types of jobs most conducive to robotization.

Their first main finding was a direct negative effect of robotics on employment and wages within commuting zones:

Our estimates imply that between 1990 and 2007 the increase in the stock of robots…reduced the employment to population ratio in a commuting zone with the average US change in robots by 0.38 percentage points, and average wages by 0.71 percent (relative to a commuting zone with no exposure to robots). These numbers…imply that one more robot in a commuting zone reduces employment by about 6 workers.

The workers most likely to be affected are male workers in routine manual occupations, with wages in the lower-to-middle range of the wage distribution

In the aggregate, these local effects are partly offset by “positive spillovers across commuting zones”–positive effects on employment and wages throughout the economy. With these spillovers taken into account, the estimated effects of robotics on employment and on wages are cut almost in half, dropping to 0.20 percent and 0.37 percent respectively.

The authors state their conclusion cautiously, as “the possibility that industrial robots might have a very different impact on labor demand than other (non-automation) technologies.”

Summary

While there is little doubt that new technologies often displace labor in particular industries and localities, the aggregate effects on employment and wages are less consistent.  Historically (late 19th and early 20th centuries), employment and labor share of income held up very well. For developed countries in the period 1970-2007, Autor and Salomons found a mixed picture, with robust employment but declining labor share after 1980. With respect to robotics specifically, Graetz and Michaels did not find declines in employment or labor share in the European Union, but Acemoglu and Restrepo found some decline in both employment and wages in the U.S.

It seems fair to say that the jury is still out on the effects of automation on the labor force. It may be that automation has no inevitable effect, but that it depends on how we as a society choose to deal with it. We shouldn’t assume a world of mass unemployment and widespread government dependency on the basis of recent, preliminary results from one country. Authors such as Thomas Friedman, who are more optimistic than Martin Ford about the long-run effects of new technologies, have yet to be proved wrong.

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