Automation vs. employment: Safety net for changing times

Even as most American workers remain anxious about the economy, at least personal trainers and chemical engineers can take heart. Their jobs, unlike many others, are unlikely to be automated away. While the US unemployment rate inches downward, the percentage of Americans who aren’t in the labor force keeps rising, stoking fears that — in fields from accounting to law to computer programming — rapid advances in computing power have rendered many of yesterday’s middle-class jobs redundant. This trend should bolster the case for a stronger, smarter social-safety net — to help workers endure and retool during periods of unemployment, while giving businesses the flexibility to deploy the latest technology.

An extensive report in The Economist recently surveyed the far-reaching effects of automation, citing research indicating that 47 percent of job categories are likely to be automated. Workers whose jobs require direct physical presence (such as firefighters and dentists) or complex, subjective judgments (such as clergy members) aren’t likely to be replaced. But telemarketers, technical writers, and real estate agents are. If nothing else, the research calls into question the general assumption that, despite a brief spell of unemployment, most laid-off workers are bound to come across suitable new jobs eventually.

Today’s workforce-development policies should thus assume a far less stable marketplace. One goal should be to promote the growth of retirement and health benefits that aren’t tied to a single employer. Health insurance costs have made it burdensome for companies to take on new hires; by making it easier for older workers to buy health insurance, Obamacare may provide greater movement in the labor market. Meanwhile, workers whose jobs have evaporated need easier ways to update their skills — a goal that online courses may further. Business leaders in Massachusetts talk of jobs that go unfilled, in health care and other fields, because workers lack the necessary skills; a concerted effort to match laid-off workers to employers in emerging fields would help everyone involved.


And workers will need to be mobile. Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist and coauthor of “The Race Between Education and Technology,” questions the wisdom of subsidizing workers to stay in place rather than pursue better opportunities elsewhere. Long ago, she notes, school districts in the agricultural Midwest prepared young people for the distinct likelihood that they wouldn’t inherit their family land — and would need to find something else to do. The challenge of automation today needs to be confronted in as clear-eyed a manner.