The robots are coming. Let’s help the middle class get ready.

机器人时代即将到来 让我们帮助中产阶级做好准备

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【来源】: 布鲁金斯学会
【时间】: 2018-12-13


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Are U.S. workers now threatened by a new and powerful form of automation that could displace tens of millions from their current jobs and dislodge them from the middle class? If so, are college-educated or professional workers at the upper range of the middle class as much threatened as those with fewer such credentials at the lower end? And can policy do much to protect the middle class status of either group?

Old fears, new trends

The fear that automation will eliminate millions of jobs, leaving masses of workers jobless, has periodically emerged in industrialized countries at least since the Luddites first made that claim in Britain in the mid-19th century. In the US, such fears occasionally surface as well, as they did during a brief “automation scare” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, when a wide swath of workers felt some risk of displacement.

To date, these fears have never proven accurate in any industrial country. New jobs always emerge to replace those that have been lost. This is true because automation raises worker productivity and reduces the costs and prices of goods and services, which makes consumers richer. They can now afford to buy more products than before, which then creates new jobs for workers to fill.

But there are costs – even for the middle class

The adjustment process I describe above does not mean that no one suffers from automation. Some workers are directly displaced from their existing jobs; perhaps they can retrain for another job in the same firm or industry, and perhaps not. Most in the latter situation become unemployed, and suffer lengthy spells without work – sometimes for years – before accepting new jobs at lower wages or leaving the work force altogether.

Displaced workers who are older or less educated are more likely to leave the labor force rather than retrain for another job. For these workers, the thought of returning to a 2- or 4-year college to learn a new skill, or to start a low-wage entry level job as a trainee, is extremely unappealing – and may not be worth it if they only have a decade or two left to work. Those who were unsuccessful at school earlier in their lives, and emerged with at most a high school diploma, are especially poor candidates for more education later. And facing the prospect of nothing but low-wage work for the rest of their lives can discourage them from ever taking another job.

And automation can hurt workers beyond those directly displaced. Since 1980, and perhaps well before, economists believe new technologies have been “skill-biased” – meaning that they substitute for less-educated workers broadly in the labor market, reducing the demand they face for their labor and thus reducing their wages and employment rates. In contrast, those with at least some postsecondary education, especially with bachelor (BA) degrees or higher, tend to complement the new technologies in a variety of ways – as engineers or technicians, or those who market and sell the new products, or those providing the health care that we demand with our higher incomes, or whose creativity in music or writing can now be enjoyed by vastly greater audiences. The employment rates and earnings of these complementary workers rise as a result of automation.

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Indeed, most labor economists believe that skill-biased technical change (SBTC) has been the largest cause of growing inequality between college-educated and other workers in the past four decades. Other forces have mattered as well – like globalization and weakening protections from unions and minimum wage laws. But new technologies have been the largest source of the new inequality.

Accordingly, SBTC has made it harder for workers without postsecondary credentials, especially those without bachelor’s (BA) degrees, to join or remain part of the middle class, while those with BAs and higher have thrived. SBTC has particularly thinned the ranks of jobs in the middle of the earnings distribution for workers with high school or less education, like production and clerical jobs, which allowed workers who held them to join the middle class in larger numbers in the decades after World War II.

And in regions where large numbers of these jobs have disappeared, such as the industrial Midwest and rural areas, broader declines in their local economies have hurt workers in other industries as well. Those who cannot or will not earn a postsecondary degree or relocate to an economically growing region – perhaps because of strong social ties or another barriers to work (like a substance addiction, a criminal record or a disability) – will remain in those areas and perhaps forego work permanently.

Is this time different?

While new digital technologies and other forces have caused rising inequality in late 20th and early 21st century, many Americans now fear a new and potentially more threatening form of automation, where even those with BAs or professional degrees could become displaced and dislodged from the middle class. Thus, it is possible that the employment consequences of this new automation will be more negative for the middle class than they were during any episode in the past.

The greater potential for future employment loss exists because of the much greater potential reach of artificial intelligence (AI) into what have until now been exclusively human functions. AI’s ability to read patterns in the physical environment and in human interactions, as well as its ability to learn over time and adjust itself accordingly, will likely enable robots and other forms of automation to perform tasks that historically have been undertaken by humans.

Some such tasks, like driving a motor vehicle in traffic or responding to customer questions and complaints in retail and service establishments, are now becoming automated and will soon eliminate several million jobs that have paid middle-class wages to workers that fill them. And, as the dexterity of robots grows, they will not only be able to perform a range of physical tasks in jobs from manufacturing to handling inventories and delivering products; they will increasingly be able to perform a range of analytical tasks in health care, legal services, accounting and finance that have required professional degrees will increasingly be within their reach. Therefore, both the lower and upper middle classes will be at risk of robot replacement, and could face lower earnings opportunities as a result.

On the more positive side, the higher productivity associated with such automation will reduce production costs and prices of a wide range of goods and services, effectively raising overall incomes and consumer spending, which will then generate millions of new jobs in existing and new industries. In addition, people in the jobs being at least partially automated will increasingly be able to focus on other tasks that robots and automation still cannot perform. Various forms of social interaction, more complex modes of analyzing data and making judgments, or more creative tasks will remain primarily within the human realm for the near future.

This means that, within most jobs, some tasks will be automatable and some will not. The higher the percentage of tasks in any job that can be automated, the greater the likelihood of worker displacement; and the greater the ability of the worker to learn new tasks on the job, the greater their likelihood of being retained by their employer and retooled for new tasks.

Jobs impact: what do we know?

Given these facts, can we estimate what fractions of U.S. workers face potential displacement, and in which jobs and industries? And does this information give us a greater sense of how to help more workers enter or remain in the middle class?

Over the past few years, estimates of potential displacement have been generated by analysts with two kinds of information: 1) the task content of occupations today in the U.S. and other industrial countries; and 2) estimates by comp