Automation Insurance: Robots Are Replacing Middle Class Jobs Automation Insurance: Robots Are Replacing Middle Class Jobs
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Automation Insurance: Robots Are Replacing Middle Class Jobs

by Andrew Price

October 16, 2010

The middle class is disappearing and the problem is deeper than politics. How will we understand work in the coming age of robotics?

Last April, the MIT economist David Autor published a report that looked at the shifting employment landscape in America. He came to this scary conclusion: Our workforce is splitting in two. The number of high-skill, high-income jobs (think lawyers or research scientists or managers) is growing. So is the number of low-skill, low-income jobs (think food preparation or security guards). Those jobs in the middle? They’re disappearing. Autor calls it “the polarization of job opportunities.”

These days, all of us, from President Obama on down, are thinking about jobs. The unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent, we’ve watched the ground disappear from under Detroit and Wall Street, and there’s a pervading sense that other industries might be next.

It’s not that the issue isn’t getting attention. The Princeton economist Paul Krugman is out there telling Congress to spend more money to create jobs. The former secretary of labor Robert Reich is arguing for tax breaks for the bottom brackets so people can buy stuff again. Here’s the thing, though: The erosion of the middle class is a phenomenon that’s bigger than the Great Recession. Middle-range jobs have been getting scarcer since the late 1970s, and wages for the ones that are still around have remained stagnant. 

In his report, Autor says that a leading explanation for the disappearance of the middle class is “ongoing automation and off-shoring of middle-skilled ‘routine’ tasks that were formerly performed primarily by workers with moderate education (a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree).” Routine tasks, he explains, are ones that “can be carried out successfully by either a computer executing a program or, alternatively, by a comparatively less-educated worker in a developing country.”

The culprit, in other words, is technology. The hard truth—and you don’t see it addressed in news reports—is that the middle class is disappearing in large part because technology is rendering middle-class skills obsolete.

People say America doesn’t make anything anymore, but that’s not true. With the exception of a few short lapses, manufacturing output has been on the rise since the 1980s. What is true is that industrial robots have been carrying ever more of the manufacturing burden on their steely shoulders since they appeared in the 1950s. Today, a Japanese company called Fanuc, Ltd., has industrial robots making other industrial robots in a “lights out” factory. (That’s the somewhat unsettling term for a fully automated production facility where you don’t need lights because you don’t need humans.) That’s where we’re headed.

It’s not just manufacturing, either. Automated call centers are replacing customer-service agents. Automated checkout stations are replacing grocery-store clerks. When the science of computer vision advances sufficiently, we’ll have algorithms, not humans, evaluating X-rays at airport security checkpoints and screening user-generated content for sites like Facebook. 

 

Robots have been carrying ever more of the manufacturing burden on their steely shoulders.

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Automation Insurance: Robots Are Replacing Middle Class Jobs