Is Something Different this Time about the Effect of Technology on Labor Markets?

From Conversable Economist:

“There’s a well-worn conversation about the relationship between new technology and possible job displacement which goes something like this:

Concerned person: “New developments in information technology and artificial intelligence are going to threaten lots of jobs.”

Skeptical person: “Economies in developed countries have been experiencing extraordinary developments and shifts in new technology for literally a couple of centuries. But as old jobs have been dislocated, new jobs have been created.”

Concerned person: “This time seems different.”

Skeptical person: “Every time is different in the specific details. But there’s certainly no downward pattern in the number of jobs in the last two centuries, or the last few decades.”

Concerned person: “Still, the way in which information technology and artificial intelligence replace workers seems different than the way in which, say, assembly lines replaced skilled artisan workers or combine harvesters replaced farm workers. ”

Skeptical person: “Maybe this time will be different. After all, it’s logically impossible to prove that something in the future will NOT be different. But based on the long-run historical pattern, the evidence that new technology leads to shifts in the labor market is clear-cut, while the evidence that it leads to permanent job loss for the population as a whole is nonexistent.”

Concerned person: “Still, this current wave of technology seems different.”

Skeptical person: “I guess we’ll see how it unfolds in the next decade or two.”

The most recent Spring 2019 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives has a symposium on “Automation and Employment.” Two of the articles in particular offer a concrete arguments about how something is different with how the current new technologies are interacting with labor markets.

Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo discuss “Automation and New Tasks: How Technology Displaces and Reinstates Labor.” They suggest a framework in which automation can have three possible effects on the tasks that are involved in doing a job: a displacement effect, when automation replaces a task previously done by a worker; a productivity effect in which the higher productivity from automation taking over certain tasks leads to more buying power in the economy, creating jobs in other sectors; and a reinstatement effect, when new technology reshuffles the production process in a way that leads to new tasks that will be done by labor.”

Posted by at 11:12 AM

Labels: Inclusive Growth


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