For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Why are there still so many jobs? The history and future of workplace automation"

by Autor, David (2015)


In this essay, I begin by identifying the reasons that automation has not wiped out a majority of jobs over the decades and centuries. Automation does indeed substitute for labor—as it is typically intended to do. However, automation also complements labor, raises output in ways that leads to higher demand for labor, and interacts with adjustments in labor supply. Journalists and even expert commentators tend to overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementarities between automation and labor that increase productivity, raise earnings, and augment demand for labor. Changes in technology do alter the types of jobs available and what those jobs pay. In the last few decades, one noticeable change has been a "polarization" of the labor market, in which wage gains went disproportionately to those at the top and at the bottom of the income and skill distribution, not to those in the middle; however, I also argue, this polarization is unlikely to continue very far into future. The final section of this paper reflects on how recent and future advances in artificial intelligence and robotics should shape our thinking about the likely trajectory of occupational change and employment growth. I argue that the interplay between machine and human comparative advantage allows computers to substitute for workers in performing routine, codifiable tasks while amplifying the comparative advantage of workers in supplying problem-solving skills, adaptability, and creativity.

Key Passage

Major newspaper stories offer fresh examples daily of technologies that substitute for human labor in an expanding—although still circumscribed—set of tasks. The offsetting effects of complementarities and rising demand in other areas are, however, far harder to identify as they occur. My own prediction is that employment polarization will not continue indefinitely (as argued in Autor 2013). While some of the tasks in many current middle-skill jobs are susceptible to automation, many middle-skill jobs will continue to demand a mixture of tasks from across the skill spectrum. For example, medical support occupations—radiology technicians, phlebotomists, nurse technicians, and others—are a significant and rapidly growing category of relatively well-remunerated, middle-skill employment. Most of these occupations require mastery of “middle-skill” mathematics, life sciences, and analytical reasoning. They typically require at least two years of postsecondary vocational training, and in some cases a four-year college degree or more. This broad description also fits numerous skilled trade and repair occupations, including plumbers, builders, electricians, heating/ventilating/air-conditioning installers, and  automotive technicians. It also fits a number of modern clerical occupations that provide coordination and decision-making functions, rather than simply typing andfiling, like a number of jobs in marketing. There are also cases where technology is enabling workers with less esoteric technical mastery to perform additional tasks: for example, the nurse practitioner occupation that increasingly performs diagnosing and prescribing tasks in lieu of physicians. (p.26)


Employment, Automation, Robots, Artificial Intelligence, Job Scarcity, Machination, Machine Substitution


Employment, Automation

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