The Robots Might Not Be Coming for Your Job After All

Job loss due to technological innovation is actually at a historic low, according to a new report, and automation is unlikely to steal your job anytime soon.

An emerging popular consensus is that the robots are coming for our jobs. Pundits warn that rapid advances in automation and artificial intelligence will bring about another industrial revolution that will elbow out millions of workers as automated systems become more efficient and sophisticated.

A new report issued this week argues that we should cancel the alarmism.

Drawing on census data, the analysis concludes that we're currently in an era of historically low “job churn” in the labor market due to automation — and that isn't likely to change anytime soon.

Job churn refers to the rate at which new occupations are created as old ones disappear.

Robert D. Atkinson and John Wu of the non-profit think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), which receives some of its funding from the tech sector, authored the report.

Atkinson and Wu conclude that automation is actually far less disruptive today than at other periods since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

“The levels of churn in the last 20 years,” they write, “have been just 38 percent of the levels from 1950 to 2000, and 42 percent of the levels from 1850 to 2000.”

And, the authors point out, the last two decades included the dot-com crash, the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the Great Recession, and the emergence of new technologies — all of which were purportedly greater shocks to the US labor market than anything prior.

The authors reviewed US census data compiled by the University of Minnesota going back to 1850 and compared changes in occupational job levels from decade to decade. 

In the introduction to the study, the authors ask: Why does this job churn data even matter?

“Because if opinion leaders continue to argue that we are in unchartered economic territory and warn that just about anyone’s occupation can be thrown on the scrap heap of history,” the authors write, “then the public is likely to sour on technological progress, and society will become overly risk averse, seeking tranquility over churn, the status quo over further innovation.”

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In the Wall Street Journal, veteran economics reporter Greg Ip echoes this concern, citing the new ITIF data to counter all the pearl clutching over job-stealing robots.

“As economic forecasts go, this idea of a robot apocalypse is certainly chilling,” Ip writes. “It’s also baffling and misguided.”

The ITIF report concludes with a set of bullet points for policymakers, warning against overreaction to a robotic labor market menace that isn't even there to begin with.

“If there is any risk for the future, it is that technological change and resulting productivity growth will be too slow, not too fast,” the authors say. “Therefore, rather than try to slow down change, policymakers should do everything possible to speed up the rate of creative destruction.”

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