With robots taking over factories and warehouses, toll collectors and cashiers increasingly being replaced by automation and even legal researchers being replaced by computers, the age-old question of whether technology is a threat to jobs is back with us big time. Technological change has been seen as a threat to jobs for centuries, but the history tells that while technology has destroyed some jobs, the overall impact has been to create new jobs, often in new industries. Will that be true after the information revolution as it was in the industrial revolution?
In an article in The New York Times, David Autor and David Dorn, who have just published research on this question, argue that the basic history remains the same: while many jobs are being disrupted, new jobs are being created and many jobs will not be replaceable by computers. While there is good news in their analysis for some in the middle-class, their findings reinforce the need to organize workers in lower-skilled jobs to demand decent wages.
The authors’ research found that while routine jobs are being replaced by computers, the number of both “abstract” and “manually intensive” jobs increased. In their article in the Times, the authors describe the new jobs:
At one end are so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. These tasks are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design. People in these jobs typically have high levels of education and analytical capability, and they benefit from computers that facilitate the transmission, organization and processing of information.
On the other end are so-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition and in-person interaction. Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers. But they are straightforward for humans, requiring primarily innate abilities like dexterity, sightedness and language recognition, as well as modest training. These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.
As the authors conclude, “This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality.”
When it comes to addressing this attack on the middle class, the authors offer some hope, but not for those low-wage workers. They argue that a large number of skilled jobs, requiring specialized training—although not necessarily a college education—will not be replaceable by computers. These include people who care for our health like medical paraprofessionals, people who care for our buildings like plumbers, people who help us use technology (I was chatting online just yesterday to get tech support) and many others. Because these jobs do require higher levels of skills, they should be able to demand middle-class wages.
But what about those housekeepers, delivery truck drivers and fast-food workers, like those who are taking actions around the country today against fast-food chains to demand better pay. The authors do not offer a path to the middle class for them.
If history is an example here as well, we should remember that lower-skilled work does not have to come with low pay. The workers who stood on assembly lines in the 1930s did not have a college education or years of specialized training; they fought for the right to organize unions and demanded high enough wages to support their families.
This Labor Day, as more and more workers are stuck in the growing number of low-wage jobs, causing enormous stress for their families while keeping the economy sluggish, we need to look to the examples of new ways of organizing workers who can not be replaced by technology. There’s the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who organized drivers to successfully win living wages and a health and disability fund. Or the successful boycott of Hyatt Hotels, leading to an agreement with UNITE HERE to not fight organizing campaigns in their hotels.
We need to support organizing by modernizing our labor laws to account for the large number of workers not currently or adequately protected, the new ways that work is organized and the global economy.
The lesson from the Autor–Dorn research is that technology doesn’t have to destroy the middle class. What will destroy the middle class is our failure as a society to provide dignity to all workers. That’s what fast-food workers and their community-labor supporters are fighting for across the country.
About the Author: Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a senior adviser to USAction and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.