These four arguments tell an altogether compelling story: The U.S. economy currently suffers not from too much automation, but rather from too little investment in the sort of technology that would raise the country’s lackluster productivity.
Do I buy it? I do. It’s hard to look at the economy and come away thinking that it suffers from a crisis of automation, or is on the precipice of a new industrial revolution right at this moment. I also agree that more technology, even labor-replacing technology, would be good for economic growth. And yet I still think it’s sensible to worry about the future of automation, for the following reasons.
First, there is only so much that one can say about the future of work from studying an economy many years into an expansion, since the most wrenching changes to the job force almost always occur during recessions. Just look at manufacturing jobs. They have declined by almost 40 percent since their 1960s high. But, if you only look at periods of economic growth, manufacturing employment actually grew by 4 million between 1969 and 2015. That means more than 100 percent of the decline in manufacturing jobs occurred during the brief period of time between 1970 and 2015 that the economy has been in a recession. In downturns, firms let excess workers go and lean more on labor-saving technology to maintain their profits. The next recession will tell us more about the future of the workforce than the current recovery.
Second, the last six months in retail employment provide a fine parable—not only for how technology typically creates more work, but also for it might subtly endanger jobs at the same time. Since October 2016, U.S. department stores have shed nearly 100,000 jobs—more than the number of American steel workers—yet overall unemployment remains quite low. That’s because the e-commerce sector isn’t just gutting malls. It’s also created tens of thousands of new jobs in warehousing (all that Amazon merchandise has to live somewhere) and transportation.
In the short run, the digitization of retail has created jobs. But it’s replacing in-store salespeople—not easily automated, since who wants a robot clothing assistant?—with warehousing and transportation workers. There are nearly 2 million truck drivers and 300,000 warehouse laborers and stocking clerks in the United States, and there are rather direct efforts underway to make a great number of these jobs obsolete. Amazon has expanded its armada of warehouse robots to more than 40,000, and self-driving cars have the attention of practically every auto and technology company in the world. So, e-commerce has created jobs—ones that are quite vulnerable to automation.
Finally, it’s conceivable that the ostensibly tranquil and low-turbulence economy is masking something more disruptive underneath the surface. Ryan Avent, the author of The Wealth of Humans, has thought about this question deeply and offered a plausible explanation. In his telling, automation has created an abundance of labor, including machine labor and human labor. Just as rising supply typically leads to falling prices, the oversupply of labor has put a downward pressure on wages. Companies, seeing that they have access to cheap labor in a slowly growing economy, invest less in new risky technology, which leads to less productivity growth. High employment, low productivity, low wage growth, and automation can all live together in the same story.