The question of whether or not robots will harm workers is being discussed with increasing urgency. On the one hand, you have optimists who argue that new technologies always raise the specter of harming workers, but that in the end, those workers find new work, and everyone’s productivity is enhanced.
Then there are those who say it might be different this time, and that there are actually periods where the advent of a new technology harms workers for a long time.
Professors David H. Autor and David Dorn have an opinion piece in the New York Times arguing that technology is wrecking the middle class.
It’s not that robots are taking away jobs per se, but rather that they’re exacerbating inequality by creating two classes of jobs: There are the upper class jobs, which use human creativity and knowledge to leverage the power of computers. Then there are the lower class jobs, which exist not because they are high-skilled, but because they can’t easily be routinized (think: driving a delivery truck or cleaning a hotel room).
So what kind of middle class jobs will survive the robotics revolution?
Autor and Dorn argue that jobs requiring some modest combination of technical skill and flexibility:
Following this logic, we predict that the middle-skill jobs that survive will combine routine technical tasks with abstract and manual tasks in which workers have a comparative advantage — interpersonal interaction, adaptability and problem-solving. Along with medical paraprofessionals, this category includes numerous jobs for people in the skilled trades and repair: plumbers; builders; electricians; heating, ventilation and air-conditioning installers; automotive technicians; customer-service representatives; and even clerical workers who are required to do more than type and file. Indeed, even as formerly middle-skill occupations are being “deskilled,” or stripped of their routine technical tasks (brokering stocks, for example), other formerly high-end occupations are becoming accessible to workers with less esoteric technical mastery (for example, the work of the nurse practitioner, who increasingly diagnoses illness and prescribes drugs in lieu of a physician). Lawrence F. Katz, a labour economist at Harvard, memorably called those who fruitfully combine the foundational skills of a high school education with specific vocational skills the “new artisans.”
The idea isn’t that everyone should go into these fields. But as we think about general training for the “middle class jobs” of the future, they’re likely to be along these lines.
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