The Future Is Hard To See

Because the present is hard to grasp.


Quote of the Moment

Making predictions is hard, not only because the future is hard to see, but also because the present is hard to grasp. 

| Derek Thompson, What Quitters Understand About the Job Market


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Ben Casselman tries to read the tea leaves in the tension between employers having to contend with workers demanding higher wages and better benefits versus the continuing trend toward automating everything that can be automated:

The trend toward automation predates the pandemic, but it has accelerated at what is proving to be a critical moment. The rapid reopening of the economy has led to a surge in demand for waiters, hotel maids, retail sales clerks and other workers in service industries that had cut their staffs. At the same time, government benefits have allowed many people to be selective in the jobs they take. Together, those forces have given low-wage workers a rare moment of leverage, leading to higher pay, more generous benefits and other perks.

Automation threatens to tip the advantage back toward employers, potentially eroding those gains. A working paper published by the International Monetary Fund this year predicted that pandemic-induced automation would increase inequality in coming years, not just in the United States but around the world.

“Six months ago, all these workers were essential,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union representing grocery workers. “Everyone was calling them heroes. Now, they’re trying to figure out how to get rid of them.”

[...]

Some economists see the increased investment as encouraging. For much of the past two decades, the U.S. economy has struggled with weak productivity growth, leaving workers and stockholders to compete over their share of the income — a game that workers tended to lose. Automation may harm specific workers, but if it makes the economy more productive, that could be good for workers as a whole, said Katy George, a senior partner at McKinsey, the consulting firm.

She cited the example of a client in manufacturing who had been pushing his company for years to embrace augmented-reality technology in its factories. The pandemic finally helped him win the battle: With air travel off limits, the technology was the only way to bring in an expert to help troubleshoot issues at a remote plant.

“For the first time, we’re seeing that these technologies are both increasing productivity, lowering cost, but they’re also increasing flexibility,” she said. “We’re starting to see real momentum building, which is great news for the world, frankly.”

Other economists are less sanguine. Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that many of the technological investments had just replaced human labor without adding much to overall productivity.

In a recent working paper, Professor Acemoglu and a colleague concluded that “a significant portion of the rise in U.S. wage inequality over the last four decades has been driven by automation” — and he said that trend had almost certainly accelerated in the pandemic.

“If we automated less, we would not actually have generated that much less output but we would have had a very different trajectory for inequality,” Professor Acemoglu said.



If we want the federal government to work to decrease inequality, we will have to demand that the trend toward automation be slowed, at the very least. Even a few steps toward automation in a workplace can have major consequences. And once something is automated, it is very difficult to undo. Again, Casselman:

Technology doesn’t have to take over all aspects of a job to leave workers worse off. If automation allows a restaurant that used to require 10 employees a shift to operate with eight or nine, that will mean fewer jobs in the long run. And even in the short term, the technology could erode workers’ bargaining power.

“Often you displace enough of the tasks in an occupation and suddenly that occupation is no more,” Professor Acemoglu said. “It might kick me out of a job, or if I keep my job I’ll get lower wages.”

At some businesses, automation is already affecting the number and type of jobs available. Meltwich, a restaurant chain that started in Canada and is expanding into the United States, has embraced a range of technologies to cut back on labor costs. Its grills no longer require someone to flip burgers — they grill both sides at once, and need little more than the press of a button.

The variance between what McKinsey's Katy George and MIT's Daron Acemoglu believe is going on is the real dividing line in this debate. Businesses are inclined to cut work through automation rather than attracting workers with higher wages. So, they will wrap their actions in McKinsey-style work-washing, saying they are freeing workers from humdrum work. Meanwhile, serious economists connect the dots the other way, signaling a trimming of work by automation. Ultimately, if Acemoglu and the others are right, many jobs will be permanently lost.