Automation Could Drastically Change The Landscape Of Labor. But Who Loses In An Increasingly High-Tech World?

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Jason Hopkins Immigration and politics reporter
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  • While automation can lead to higher productivity and cheaper prices for consumers, its emergence poses a risk for a significant portion of the U.S. labor force, studies found. 
  • The working class — including individuals employed in the production, food service, and transportation industries — are at greater risk of losing their jobs to automation than others who are working in fields that require more education. 
  • One study by the Brookings Institution found that, while automation won’t lead to a “job apocalypse,” it could spell trouble for working class Americans who perform monotonous jobs.

Leaps in technological advancements have increased human productivity and raised the quality of life for the world’s labor force, but many leaders are growing concerned that automation will soon leave workers out of a job.

Since the dawn of the modern workforce, automation has continued to change how Americans make a living. Nowadays, around half of the checkout lanes at local grocery stores are dedicated to self-service checkout machines, reducing the need for cashiers. The movies currently playing in theaters owned by major U.S. companies now run on digital projectors, rendering movie reel projectionists a footnote in history.

For generations, employees have been able to ride the ever-changing labor environment, shifting into new job roles when other roles are no longer needed. However, many other American workers may have reasons to worry.

One-quarter of U.S. jobs are at “high-risk” of automation, according to a study released in January 2019 by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. The study, titled “Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How Machines Affect People and Places,” found that another 36% of jobs are at a “medium-risk” of being manned by a machine instead of a wage-earning human.

The study found that jobs in the production, food service and transportation industries were most susceptible to being lost to automation.

“If your job is boring and repetitive, you’re probably at great risk of automation,” said a co-author of the study and a senior fellow at Brookings, Mark Muro, according to CNBC. “These technologies are likely going to benefit those who are well-trained … Virtually all jobs are going to begin to experience some pressure from automation.”

While most industries will experience at least some effects of automation, specific regions and demographic groups will be impacted more than others.

The Brookings study found that heartland states would be more affected, given their longtime specialization in agricultural and and manufacturing industries. Men, more so than women, would be impacted by the effects of automation because of their outsized representation in construction and transportation.

While younger Americans are considered more tech savvy, they are actually more at risk of automation than older people because they make up a larger share of the retail and food industry. The elimination of such entry-level jobs, Muro said, could make it harder for the country’s youth to land their first job.

Automation. Shutterstock

Manager engineer check and control automation robot arms machine in intelligent factory industrial on real time monitoring system software. Shutterstock

Perhaps unsurprisingly, positions that do not require a bachelor’s degree are at greater risk of being automated, Brookings found.

In contrast, jobs that require higher levels of education are much less likely to be at risk. Individuals working in financial operations, business, engineering, health services, and other industries that require human input are less likely to lose employment to automation.

But will automation and the rise of artificial intelligence lead a so-called job apocalypse? In a subsequent report, the Brookings authors concluded that, while future job growth will roughly mirror growth seen in past decades, there are signs of concern for the country’s most vulnerable workers.

“In short, the first wave of digital automation very likely contributed to the decline of the middle class, the explosion of inequality, and perhaps even the 2016 election backlash. To that extent, a future that portends more of the same seems as much cause for disquiet as reassurance,” the authors wrote.

The changes brought on by new technology may have helped give an unlikely rise to one 2020 presidential candidate: Andrew Yang.

“[W]e are experiencing the greatest technological shift the world has ever seen,” reads an excerpt from Yang’s official website. “By 2015, automation had already destroyed four million manufacturing jobs, and the smartest people in the world now predict that a third of all working Americans will lose their jobs to automation in the next 12 years.”

“Our current policies are not equipped to handle this crisis,” it continues. “Even our most forward-thinking politicians are unprepared.”

Yang, a businessman and tech entrepreneur, has centered his entire presidential campaign around his proposal for a “freedom dividend,” the automatic payment of money to all American adults. Yang argues that such a payment — known as universal basic income — is needed because automation will ultimately lead to massive job losses. (RELATED: POLL: 49% Of Registered Voters Are In Favor Of Universal Basic Income)

Despite being a virtual unknown before announcing his candidacy, Yang has gone on to qualify for every Democratic presidential debate so far — something that other longtime politicians have been unable to accomplish. Yang has also performed better than other, more well-known Democratic candidates in various surveys.

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