The Great Robot Freakout of 2015 has begun, and it looks a lot like the robot freakouts that came before it.
In a new survey by CNBC, Americans were asked how concerned they were, if at all, that their jobs could be replaced by technology in the next five years. The level of automation angst was astonishing: About 1 in 8 workers indicated was worried about being displaced. Among those earning less than $30,000, it was a whopping 1 in 4.
No doubt these workers have seen travel agents, bank tellers, typists, mid-skilled manufacturing workers and other occupations of yore dissolve into a pixelation of zeroes and ones, causing them to worry about their own livelihoods. Media fear-mongering about the rise of our robot overlords feeds the anxiety. But there are reasons to be optimistic about the role that technological progress will play in our economy and in helping our workforce, provided policymakers get their acts together.
Droid dread is nothing new. It goes back hundreds, arguably thousands, of years. Sometimes it has manifested itself in science fiction and other narrative lore, such as Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian 1952 novel “Player Piano” or the 16th-century legend of the Golem of Prague. Often it has been voiced by workers and their intellectual champions. During the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes fretted about the possibility of “technological unemployment.” Nineteenth-century textile workers and farmers, including the original “Luddites,” smashed the power looms and threshing machines that stole their jobs during the Industrial Revolution. Even Aristotle mused that if “the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.”
Then, as now, such premonitions embraced the so-called Luddite Fallacy: that technological developments would permanently reduce or even eliminate the need for human labor. But again and again such fears have been proven wrong. Across history, technological developments have caused certain skill sets and jobs to obsolesce, yes, but they have also created demand for new skill sets and types of jobs, typically higher-paying ones that are complementary to technological advances. In 1900, 41 percent of the U.S. workforce labored in farming; those jobs disappeared, but new ones sprang up in their place, mostly in occupations that could not have even been imagined in 1900.
This track record makes today’s automation fears look somewhat silly, or at least shortsighted. Some have argued that a greater share of all jobs today are vulnerable to simultaneous displacement compared with past episodes — given Moore’s law about the inevitable advance of computing power — but so far we haven’t seen this fear materialize. If anything, layoffs have fallen to record lows in recent years.
That said, today, as in the past, being displaced by technology is excruciatingly painful — particularly since the types of new jobs being created may not fit the skill sets of those being displaced. A laid-off autoworker will not as easily find work as, say, a software engineer.
That’s where good policy can help.
Technological progress is inevitable, and we cannot turn back the clock. What we can do is help displaced workers transition to new jobs and provide some financial cushion in the meantime. That means shoring up our unemployment insurance system, investing in retraining and making sure that retraining programs align with employer needs. It also means nudging high school and college students toward skills that are expected to complement, rather than be rendered obsolete by, new technologies.
There’s also a role for policymakers in helping workers who have not been displaced by technology, per se, but who have not exactly seen much upside from it either, at least in their paychecks. That CNBC poll also asked Americans whether they had become more productive at work because of technology, and a majority answered yes. But of those, only about 1 in 3 said their wages had risen as their productivity increased. This perception is confirmed by government economic data, which show that starting in the 1970s, productivity gains have disproportionately been captured by holders of capital rather than workers.
To some extent this pattern probably reflects the specific kinds of technological improvements we’ve seen in recent decades and the nature of the digital revolution. But to some extent it also reflects policy choices we’ve made as a society: to dismantle unions, to let the minimum wage inflate away, to let politically connected corporations stack the deck in their favor.
Can’t blame any of that on the robots, alas.