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The Dartmouth
June 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Adkins: Is Automation Really A Good Thing?

While automation and technological advancements have increased efficiency and lowered global poverty rates, the impacts on blue collar jobs and the potential consequences of further automation cannot be ignored.

In the past few decades, we have seen the abundance of new technologies continue to sprawl, leading to incredible amounts of “progress” for humanity. These sweeping advancements, particularly in automation, have not only made consumer products more affordable but have also significantly liberated valuable time previously dedicated to laborious tasks. Additionally, the recent developments in the realm of AI have led to exciting prospects for various industries and fields, revolutionizing the way we live and work. 

However, the increasing use of automation in the United States may be more of a threat to job markets than people realize. 

Firstly, the very existence of automation implies the loss of jobs. Automation is a way for companies to make jobs cheaper and more efficient through the use of technology. Machines, big or small, are used in lieu of human labor. Companies would rather pay for one machine that can produce the same amount of product rather than pay numerous human workers. While this is a simple business decision for companies, workers now find themselves out of jobs. As the economist and John French economics professor at Dartmouth Douglas Irwin pointed out in Foreign Affairs, automation has created a reality where many blue-collar jobs have become “obsolete.” The American labor force has seen quite an evolution as a result of increasing automation. In fact, a study from Ball State University found that almost 88% of lost manufacturing jobs are a result of automation. Additionally, taking data from 1990 to 2007, a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that every robot in a factory replaces approximately six jobs. As a result, robots have replaced  “as many as 670,000 jobs for the years that they looked at, and as many as 1.5 million jobs at 2016 levels of robot usage in the US.”

The ramifications of industrial automation in places like the American Rust Belt extend beyond mere job losses, encompassing the abandonment and neglect of once-thriving locations. Take Ohio for example. Known for being a top manufacturer in rubber, plastic and metals, the state is now home to cities with vacant lots and displaced workers willing to work without alternative options. Populations of cities like Cleveland and Toledo have steadily dwindled since its heyday. While confounding variables like housing costs and poor public infrastructure may provide context, the reality is that many once-bustling manufacturing municipalities around the United States have seen this shift. 

Automation has historically allowed for increased productivity and the creation of new, more specialized jobs, but this trend may stagnate due to the rate at which jobs are being replaced. Proponents of automation may note that people displaced by automation have found new types of work in other fields, but currently, safety nets are minimal. A study at the University of Oxford suggests that “wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerization.” This means we now face the issue of ensuring that people with less-than-average resources displaced by automation can attain the resources to pursue higher-skilled work made possible by technology. As David Rotman from MIT notes, “while big data, automation and AI should in theory be making businesses more productive, boosting the economy and creating more jobs to offset the ones being lost, this hasn’t happened.” 

It’s no secret that automation has certainly had its effect on jobs, but the mobilization against automation has been largely absent. Instead, the focus is often on fighting the ‘evils of globalization.’ Much of the American right’s rhetoric throughout the Trump Era echoed speech of keeping American jobs in America. This trend has continued into the Biden administration as Biden’s new “bidenenomics” harnesses energy in reinvigorating America’s middle class and investing in American jobs through similar protectionist policies as Trump. 

However, the recent emergence of AI is instilling genuine fear in people across many different demographics. The discussion is becoming less about how we can prevent companies from offshoring American jobs and more about how to protect entire sectors from being replaced by AI. This extends beyond just manufacturing work and threatens people with jobs ranging from journalism to data science. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that one-third of American workers could be displaced by automation by 2030. Additionally, KPMG notes that 20% of jobs in financial services could be automated by 2026. As stated earlier, the evolution of technology has occurred at a much higher rate than ever before with little time to adapt. 

As Americans realize that automation may be a real threat to their livelihoods, we are likely to see active pushback. Whether or not politicians will mobilize a majority that seeks to mitigate technological advancements is unknown. Still, political discussions around the world are beginning to center around the possibility of regulating AI and automation.

Though I argue that regulating AI and automation could stifle advancements towards potentially positive uses, the United States government certainly has a role in providing necessary support for displaced workers. In addition to the federal government implementing a UBI and Social Safety Nets, it is also important for the government to support training programs that assist workers to have relevant skills in this evolving job market. Furthermore, fostering technological literacy through specific tech-based curriculum in schools will ensure that people are better able to adapt to technological advancements. While we move into a future in which automation may dominate the job market, the threat of a massive shift in countless social, political and economic sectors shall not be understated. 

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.