(NYT Op-ed) Ross Douthat–Has The Robot Apocalypse Been Postponed?

The best reason to doubt Yang’s story is contained in productivity statistics, which measure the output of the gainfully employed and which traditionally rise rapidly during periods of technological change — because even if workers are losing their jobs to the spinning jenny or the automobile, other workers should be increasing their productivity with the new technology’s assistance.

Lately this hasn’t been happening. Instead productivity growth in the developed world has decelerated over the last decade. To quote a recent summary, in mature economies “labor productivity growth rates halved from an average annual rate of 2.3 percent in the period 2000-2007 to 1.2 percent from 2010-2017.” Combine that with the slow, consistent trend back toward full employment in the American economy — again, not what you’d expect if the labor market were being upended by technology — and the story of our times looks more like stasis than automated revolution, more like the stagnation discerned by a number of heterodox thinkers than the acceleration of conventional wisdom.

Yang and I wrangled about just this question when he graciously came on our Op-Ed podcast, The Argument. He suggested that what we’re seeing in the statistics is that automation for now is just holding down wages and shunting people out of industrial occupations and into low-paying service sector work … and that come a few more breakthroughs and the next recession, when companies will inevitably seek roboticized efficiency, you’ll start to get far more significant disruption.

He could be right; he’s certainly right that automation has had some impact on middle-class jobs, influencing the populism roiling Western politics. But it seems equally plausible that the real state of things is captured by my colleague Neal Boudette’s update on the status of the self-driving car, long portrayed as a technological breakthrough poised to throw lots of people — from long-distance truckers to cabdrivers — out of work.

Read it all.


Posted in Labor/Labor Unions/Labor Market, Science & Technology