Technology has exploded through the American economy over the past thirty years, bringing automation through computers and robots to scores of professions that previously required a heavy “human touch.”
Economists David Autor and David Dorn took up this topic in yesterday’s New York Times, noting that “the multi-trillionfold decline in the cost of computing since the 1970s has created enormous incentives for employers to substitute increasingly cheap and capable computers for expensive labor,” incentives that “have reawakened fears that workers will be displaced by machinery.”
They begin by emphasizing that “a starting point for discussion is the observation that although computers are ubiquitous, they cannot do everything….Computers excel at “routine” tasks: organizing, storing, retrieving and manipulating information, or executing exactly defined physical movements in production processes.” These tasks “are most pervasive in middle-skill jobs like bookkeeping, clerical work and repetitive production and quality-assurance jobs,” and so, “logically, computerization has reduced the demand for these jobs.”
At the same time, computerization “has boosted demand for workers who perform “nonroutine” tasks that complement the automated activities,” and “those tasks happen to lie on opposite ends of the occupational skill distribution.”
“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.” These generally high-education, high-skill jobs have done very well in the new economy, as “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.
“Computerization has therefore fostered a polarization of employment, with job growth concentrated in both the highest- and lowest-paid occupations, while jobs in the middle have declined,” they continue. Overall employment has not declined as a result of computerization, but “as employment in routine jobs has ebbed, employment has risen both in high-wage managerial, professional and technical occupations and in low-wage, in-person service occupations,” and “so computerization is not reducing the quantity of jobs, but rather degrading the quality of jobs for a significant subset of workers.”
In looking for solutions to help the disrupted, “one common recommendation is that citizens should invest more in their education,” but only a (relatively stable) fraction of Americans seem suited for traditional college educations, and boosting enrollment rates will not necessarily benefit anyone beyond college administrations.
Not all hope is lost for the middle economy, however, for “while many middle-skill jobs are susceptible to automation, others demand a mixture of tasks that take advantage of human flexibility.” They lavish particular praise on the prospects for medical paraprofessionals, the “radiology technician, phlebotomist, nurse technician,” as jobs that usually only need some degree of vocational training, not a four-year degree.
“These middle-skill jobs will persist, and potentially grow, because they involve tasks that cannot readily be unbundled without a substantial drop in quality,” such as “the frustration of calling a software firm for technical support, only to discover that the technician knows nothing more than the standard answers shown on his or her computer screen — that is, the technician is a mouthpiece reading from a script, not a problem-solver.”
They forsee “numerous jobs for people in the skilled trades and repair: plumbers; builders; electricians; heating, ventilation and air-conditioning installers; automotive technicians; customer-service representatives; and even clerical workers who are required to do more than type and file,” in addition to medical paraprofessionals, thanks to the need for “workers [that] will adeptly combine technical skills with interpersonal interaction, flexibility and adaptability to offer services that are uniquely human.”
Much of what Autor and Dorn say is true, and jobs that enable people to employ their full faculties will increase both their productivity and human flourishing. Such would be the ideal scenario for any economy. What Autor and Dorn neglect, however, is that such jobs and such an economy are not constructed merely because the supply of human labor with faculties to offer is plentiful.
Instead, it requires an richer understanding of human flourishing than we have heretofore seen much evidence of to pervade the ideas shaping our economy. As Matt Crawford so skillfully documented in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, the ideas of scientific management that launched the twentieth century, putting men on the clock and endeavoring to routinize as much labor as possible so that it could be planned by expert managers, continue to shape what our jobs look like today.
Many of the jobs that have now been computerized, such as the rote assembly line worker, were themselves products of that routinizing crusade of Frederick Taylor and his contemporaries, who drove out skilled tradesmen in their effort to transfer the conscious component of labor into management’s hands, and reduce their men to machines. Computerization merely finishes the job.
As the tech economy progresses, there is tremendous potential for a humane economy that encourages human flourishing and increases welfare across all measures. But it will require a theory of labor richer than those currently at hand to pervade our society, and guide what we build. Should the ideas of the past continue apace, the high-skill elite will continue to automate as much as they can, developing various forms of artificial intelligence to simulate human judgment, achieving just enough accuracy to pay off.
Such an economy may even produce enough wealth to support the displaced with a generous enough welfare state to keep genuine misery (and upheaval) at bay. That may be what we are beginning to see the Social Security Disability program become.
There is a richer economy at hand, however, should we show the wisdom to seek it out.