December 20, 2014
Humans Having Hard Time Keeping Up With Robots?

Claire Cain Miller thinks American workers are struggling to keep up with robots.

A machine that administers sedatives recently began treating patients at a Seattle hospital. At a Silicon Valley hotel, a bellhop robot delivers items to people’s rooms. Last spring, a software algorithm wrote a breaking news article about an earthquake that The Los Angeles Times published.

Declining workforce participation rates of both men and women are in part caused by declining opportunities for those without high levels of skills. What's causing those declining opportunities? While immigration and offshore outsourcing are significant reasons so is automation. See the report Technology Explains Drop in Manufacturing Jobs and in particular see chart 4. In manufacturing employment of those with advanced degrees has risen while employment of high school drop-outs and high school graduates has plunged. Many blue collar workers are dispirited.

We are witnessing a fundamental change in the relationship between labor and capital. In a nutshell: it used to be that engineers designed products that humans built using tooling that engineers designed. But in the era we are entering increasingly it is the case that engineers design products while other engineers design robots to build those products.

We are not yet fully in the new era. Most manufacturing still has steps that humans do. But the fraction of steps done by humans is going to keep going down. Also, manufacturing is not the only area where automation is making a big dent in the labor market. At the same time lots of non-manufacturing work is getting automated. My own frequency of exposure to cashiers, bank tellers, postal clerks and lots of other low skilled workers has dropped enormously. I haven't been in a bank for at least a year. I rarely get any envelope in the physical mail that I need to open. Most of you probably have the same experience. I am amazed that well over 95% of my expenditures do not involve human contact.

What I find most curious about the impact of automation: even as the rate of labor market participation has dropped in the prime working years of 25-54 the fraction of the elderly working has risen. Some of that work is out of desperation. Some people have so little to retire on they just keep working. I know such people. But I suspect that highly skilled older people might be staying in the labor force because they are still competitive and want a higher living standard even if they do not need it.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2014 December 20 06:30 PM 

Abelard Lindsey said at December 21, 2014 10:16 AM:

I'm an automation and control system engineer. Articles like this make me feel real good that I went back into engineering about 3 years ago. It is music to my ears.

Dave said at December 22, 2014 8:38 AM:

So which is it?
The workforce is involuntarily declining?
The workforce is voluntarily declining?

Because if it's the first then HOW IS IT that the elderly (i.e. less technically skilled) are able to find jobs?

Something doesn't add up here.

Michael said at December 22, 2014 12:35 PM:

"So which is it?
The workforce is involuntarily declining?
The workforce is voluntarily declining?"

I would say it is a combination of both. Older workers are already well established, and they do not want to give up their spots to younger workers. Once those workers do retire, they will be replaced by machines, not millennials.

Brett Bellmore said at December 22, 2014 4:27 PM:

"HOW IS IT that the elderly (i.e. less technically skilled) are able to find jobs?"

The 'elderly' have a long record of showing up and doing the job, this is a pretty significant advantage in trying to land a job. And, in many fields, the youthful are hardly going to be more technically skilled than the elderly, who may have been working in a field for longer than the younger applicants have been alive.

Randall Parker said at December 24, 2014 12:27 PM:


I think there are multiple causes of what is going on. Here are some of them:
- immigration has brought in a newer group of people who achieve less in school and jobs. So the older generation achieved a higher level of skills than the newer generation.
- older generations in some cases are working in industries (e.g. car plants) that haven't hired in decades. Automation replaces the new hires. The workforces age and shrink.
- some skills really develop thru work. If you do not feel desperation to work you do not accumulate skills. Older people had the desperation.
- the workmen's comp programs are heavily abused. People get legal recognition as disabled and then they just collect checks.

But as regards your claim about older folks being less technically skilled: As compared to who?

A 65 year old engineer has more skills than the average 25 year old. Ditto a 65 year old CPA or a 65 year old hotel manager or 65 year old HR manager.

There is also desperation. I knew a 70 year old who worked as a greeter in a Florida Wal-Mart because he was desperate. A 30 year old guy living with his surgeon assistant RN girlfriend has someone to live off of. Ditto the 27 year old living in his parent's basement.

I've met 60 and 70 year olds raising their grandchildren and great grandchildren and therefore still working to make money. The last responsible generation in a lot of American families is now the elderly generation.

Dr. Franklyn said at February 16, 2015 7:32 AM:

Really nice article. However the first comment said something looked good to me. Even though I am not working in this field though.

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