Tech­nol­ogy will help work­ers, not re­place them

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Oren Cass This ar­ti­cle is one in a se­ries about op­ti­mism in 2019. Oren Cass is a se­nior fel­low at the Man­hat­tan In­sti­tute and au­thor of the new book “The Once and Fu­ture Worker: A Vi­sion for the Re­newal of Work in Amer­ica.”

Ro­bots and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence are win­ning our jobs and an apoc­a­lypse is upon us, or so the em­ploy­ment hor­ror story goes.

In­no­va­tion and au­to­ma­tion are noth­ing new, nor is the fear they in­spire. What’s changed is the in­ter­ests of econ­o­mists and pol­i­cy­mak­ers who once tried to re­as­sure anx­ious work­ers but now, after pre­sid­ing over decades of la­bor mar­ket de­cline, are de­lighted to have a scape­goat. So we hear that the aban­don­ment of the Amer­i­can work­force has been the un­avoid­able re­sult of ir­re­sistible forces, the col­lat­eral dam­age of progress. And with those ex­pla­na­tions come dire warn­ings for the fu­ture: Jobs will van­ish, hu­man work­ers will be ren­dered ob­so­lete, re­liance on a gov­ern­ment check will be­come the norm.

It’s not true. Tech­nol­ogy isn’t the cul­prit be­hind job loss, nor will it be. To the con­trary, ro­bots can be work­ers’ best friends. The aban­don­ment of the Amer­i­can worker, in­stead, has been a con­scious choice on the part of pol­i­cy­mak­ers. And while that’s de­press­ing, to be sure, it is also cause for hope. If bad choices are cre­at­ing our em­ploy­ment chal­lenges, bet­ter choices can solve them. The fu­ture of work is within our con­trol, and tech­nol­ogy is part of the so­lu­tion, not the prob­lem.

Get­ting com­fort­able with tech­nol­ogy be­gins with un­der­stand­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity, the mea­sure of how much a worker can pro­duce in some pe­riod of time. Imag­ine a wid­get fac­tory in which 10 peo­ple each pro­duce one wid­get each day. If the work­ers’ pro­duc­tiv­ity dou­bles, each can make two wid­gets daily, and five work­ers can now make what once re­quired 10. Did that im­prove­ment “de­stroy” five jobs?

No­tice, I haven’t said any­thing about how pro­duc­tiv­ity in­creased at the wid­get fac­tory. Per­haps the own­ers in­stalled a ro­bot. That would be “au­to­ma­tion.” But per­haps they switched to new ma­te­ri­als that are eas­ier to work with. Or pro­vided train­ing that im­proved ev­ery­one’s skills and thus their ef­fi­ciency. Would any­one say that train­ing “de­stroys” jobs or worry that it harms work­ers?

When peo­ple worry about au­to­ma­tion, they are ar­bi­trar­ily choos­ing one form of pro­duc­tiv­ity growth to fear. But ris­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity is good for work­ers, re­gard­less of its cause. Among other things, it is the nec­es­sary pr­ereq­ui­site to ris­ing wages.

Hy­po­thet­i­cally, au­to­ma­tion could in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity so rapidly that many work­ers would be­came re­dun­dant faster than new roles for them could emerge. That would in­deed be cause for con­cern. But it hasn’t hap­pened in the past, and it is not hap­pen­ing to­day.

The gov­ern­ment tracks worker pro­duc­tiv­ity care­fully and its data show that, how­ever much tech­nol­ogy is en­ter­ing the work­place, pro­duc­tiv­ity gains are ac­tu­ally slow­ing. In other words, tech­nol­ogy is wip­ing out fewer jobs than ever. From 1950 to 2000, econ­o­my­wide pro­duc­tiv­ity rose by an av­er­age of 2.1% each year, mean­ing that eight work­ers could pro­duce by the end of each decade what re­quired 10 to pro­duce at the start. By com­par­i­son, pro­duc­tiv­ity growth from 2000 to 2015 was 1.8%; and from 2010 to 2015, it was 0.7%. Far from liv­ing in an era of un­prece­dented job dis­rup­tion, our era is one of rel­a­tive stag­na­tion.

Some stud­ies pre­dict that a large share of jobs will soon dis­ap­pear, but those fore­casts err by treat­ing each job as a sin­gle task that ei­ther will or won’t be au­to­mated. When an­a­lysts look more closely at the many tasks that a given job en­tails, they find some­thing more com­plex. Few jobs, per­haps 5% to 10%, ap­pear fully au­tomat­able in the com­ing decades, with the tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ments we can an­tic­i­pate. For most jobs, some tasks can be au­to­mated but oth­ers can’t. The man­age­ment con­sult­ing firm McKin­sey and Co. es­ti­mates that roughly half of ex­ist­ing tasks could be au­to­mated by 2055. This mean we will still need hu­man work­ers, and if we do things in the right way, they will be much more pro­duc­tive.

Nor should we be wor­ried that work­ers won’t adapt. Busi­ness lead­ers con­stantly lament a “skills gap,” com­plain­ing that work­ers just don’t have the knowl­edge to im­ple­ment new tech­nolo­gies. This is a mar­ket sig­nal: Adopt­ing tech­nol­ogy in the work­place is go­ing to be hard; it will pro­ceed only as quickly as em­ploy­ers make it work with the em­ploy­ees they have. The path does not lead around work­ers but di­rectly to them.

A brighter fu­ture does, how­ever, re­quire that pol­i­cy­mak­ers grap­ple with what has ac­tu­ally gone wrong in our econ­omy. We’ve built an ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that fo­cuses on mint­ing col­lege grad­u­ates, though most Amer­i­cans still don’t earn even a two-year de­gree. We’ve used en­vi­ron­men­tal rules to make build­ing things — wid­gets — in the real world too costly and risky. And our lax ap­proach to in­ter­na­tional trade and im­mi­gra­tion has en­cour­aged busi­nesses to look over­seas for in­ex­pen­sive la­bor, or bring it here, rather than find ways to part­ner ef­fec­tively with the work­ers we have to make them more ef­fec­tive at their jobs.

If we in­stead make the Amer­i­can worker’s pro­duc­tiv­ity our pri­or­ity, there is ev­ery rea­son to be op­ti­mistic that our econ­omy can once again be an en­gine of broad­based pros­per­ity. We’ll be count­ing on tech­no­log­i­cal progress to help.

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