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Welcome to Robots @ Work

Back in 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that within the next 100 years advances in technology would make work so productive that his grandchildren’s generation would face a “permanent problem” of how to use all of their free time. He proposed divvying up the work in three-hour shifts or fifteen-hour work weeks to give everyone enough to do to stay content.

Over the past nine decades commentators on the left and the right have suggested that increases in automation would lead to technological unemployment. In 1962, Milton Friedman proposed a negative income tax or a Universal Basic Income. Six years later Murray Bookchin published Post-Scarcity Anarchism.

But in 2021 we’re still far from solving the problem of scarcity and we haven’t automated away work.

To be sure technological advances have transformed the world of work. In some cases, labor saving technologies eliminated jobs. The US produces more steel today than it did in 1970 but the steel industry employs less than a quarter of the workforce. In other cases, new technologies created new jobs. In fact, many of today’s fastest growing jobs didn’t even exist 90 years ago — or even 30 years ago. The introduction of app-based employment did not start the trend towards casualization of work, but it certainly did accelerate it.

A new machine age?

More recently, academics like Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson and politicians like Andrew Yang have argued that things really are different this time around and we’re headed for a massive wave of technological unemployment.

Are they right?

Maybe? I doubt it. For all of the advances we’ve seen in recent years there are still major gaps to full automation in most industries. We still don’t have general purpose artificial intelligence and most of our automated platforms still require human-in-the-loop engagement and ghost work.

But the real impediments to total automation are political and economic, not technological. The logics of capitalism and the state require that people are dependent on employers and the market for their livelihoods. Wage labor is as much about social control as it is about production.

We’re probably not headed to fully automated luxury communism right now but in the coming years we are poised to see dramatic transformations in workplaces, labor markets, and how work is organized. And that has as much to do with the economic pressures as it does with technological advances.

John Henry’s steam engine and post pandemic automation

One of the best known stories about technological unemployment is the story of John Henry’s epic race against the steam drill. And certainly, there are instances of workers seeing their bosses buying new equipment and laying them off, but that’s not generally how it happens.

Historically we have seen major advances in the adoption of labor-saving technologies in the immediate aftermath of recessions. At the onset of the recession as demand falls employers lay off workers and reduce overall employment. Then as the economy starts to pick up again, employers invest in new and more productive equipment before they bring back workers.

Take a look at this chart of annual growth in labor productivity. After the start of each recession (marked in gray) we see a significant spike in labor productivity.

As the COVID-19 pandemic — and the associated economic recession — continues we can expect to see this trend continue. But this time, there’s reason to believe that the push towards automation will be even more dramatic. With a deadly virus spreading like wildfire employers are turning to automation to continue their operations. And consumers are beginning to prefer automated service in ways that they would have never tolerated before the recession. While ordering food from a touch screen or using the self-checkout line at the supermarket was once seen as impersonal and alienating, now it just makes sense.

A touch screen kiosk at McDonalds

Perhaps the biggest winner in the recession has Amazon, which saw record breaking profits in each quarter since the start of the recession. Amazon has always been an early adopter of labor-saving technologies, with robots buzzing around the floors of its fulfillment centers. But the company is also now the country’s second largest private sector employer. For the past 10 months, the e-commerce giant has been on a massive hiring spree, bringing on an average of 1,400 new workers every single day. The company’s total workforce is now 1.2 million.

Welcome to Robots @ Work!

Over the next several months we are going to see dramatic changes in workplaces and the way work is organized. That’s where this blog comes in. Each week I’ll publish a short roundup of updates and analysis on the changing world of work. We’ll look at new technologies, unexpected (and expected) consequences, macro-economic trends, and stories of workers responding the changing landscape. We’ll also define the terms (what’s the difference between Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning?) and historical examples of technological change at work (who were the Luddites!?).

What do you want to hear about? How do you think the world of work is going to change in this political moment? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments. And, of course, you can subscribe here to get these updates sent straight to your mailbox!



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