If Robots Are Taking Jobs, Then Why Are There Still So Many Jobs?

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Jan 04 2017 |

David Autor, who helped explain the “China Shock,” has a few ideas.

The robots are coming. They’re taking our jobs — and there’s nothing we can do about it.

It’s a common argument making the rounds these days — one that we don't agree with, natch.

But it also presents a paradox. For more than a century, humans have been creating machines to do our work for us. But the number of U.S. adults with a job has consistently gone up for the past 125 years. So… what’s going on?

Enter MIT economist David Autor. You might remember Autor as the guy who helped coin the phrase “China Shock” to describe the devastating effect that trade with China had on millions of American workers.

Despite those findings, Autor seems optimistic about the future of the American job market — and he certainly isn’t afraid of robots. In a recent TED talk, Autor explains why:

The entire TED talk is worth your time, but here’s an argument that spoke to us:

“As automation frees our time, increases the scope of what is possible, we invent new products, new ideas, new services, that command our attention, occupy our time and spur consumption. … Automation creates wealth by allowing us to do more work in less time. There’s no economic law that we’ll use that wealth well, and that is worth worrying about.”

Automation does present a challenge. As Autor notes, the number of middle class jobs (including in manufacturing) have shrunk while low-paying service jobs have grown, in part because many jobs have become more efficient.

But that’s no reason to throw in the towel. America has been here before. If anything, America must seize an opportunity to invest in its future.

At the start of the 20th century, new inventions made many farming jobs obsolete. In response, America invested in education, leading to the high school education system.

“If the U.S. had not invested in its schools and skills a century ago with the high school movement, we would be a less prosperous, a less mobile and probably a lot less happy society,” Autor says. “But it’s equally foolish to say that our fates are sealed, that’s not decided by the machines, it’s not even decided by the market. It’s decided by us and by our institutions.”

Automation has meant that the moving assembly line days of Henry Ford are long past. But manufacturing continues to be a hugely important part of the U.S. economy.

More than 12 million Americans are employed in manufacturing. Its gross output reached $5.9 trillion in 2013 alone. It drives much of America’s research and development (R&D) activity — 90 percent of all new patents come from the sector.

Manufacturing matters, and manufacturing is always going to need workers to help keep it moving and advancing. As automation makes it easier to make stuff, the ability to create even cooler stuff becomes possible. And we’re going to need smart, talented people to help invent and make all those new things, even with all the robots.

Now it's up to us to rise to the challenge and make sure we can get the job done.