Aug 22 Automation and increasingly sophisticated
computers have boosted demand for both highly educated and
low-skilled workers around the globe, while eroding demand for
middle-skilled jobs, according to research to be presented to
global central bankers on Friday.
But only the highly educated workers are benefiting through
higher wages, wrote MIT professor David Autor in the paper
prepared for a central banking conference in Jackson Hole,
Wyoming. Middle- and lower-skilled workers are seeing their
That is in part because as middle-skilled jobs dry up, those
workers are more likely to seek lower-skilled jobs, boosting the
pool of available labor and putting downward pressure on wages.
"(W)hile computerization has strongly contributed to
employment polarization, we would not generally expect these
employment changes to culminate in wage polarization except in
tight labor markets," Autor wrote.
Any long-term strategy to take advantage of advances in
computers should rely heavily on investments in human capital to
produce "skills that are complemented rather than substituted by
technology," he said.
Recounting the long history of laborers vilifying
technological advances, Autor argues that most such narratives
underestimate the fact that computers often complement rather
than replace the jobs of higher-skilled workers.
People with skills that are easily replaced by machines,
such as 19th-century textile workers, do lose their jobs.
In recent years computer engineers have pushed computers
farther into territory formerly considered to be human-only,
like driving a car.
Still, computer-driven job polarization has a natural limit,
Autor argues. For some jobs, such as plumbers or medical
technicians who take blood samples, routine tasks are too
intertwined with those requiring interpersonal and other human
skills to be easily replaced.
"I expect that a significant stratum of middle skill,
non-college jobs combining specific vocational skills with
foundational middle skills - literacy, numeracy, adaptability,
problem-solving and common sense - will persist in coming
decades," Autor wrote.
Autor, who has been studying technology and its impact on
jobs since before the dot-com bubble burst, notes that some
economists have pointed to the weak U.S. labor market since the
2000s as evidence of the adverse impact of computerization.
Such modern-day Luddites are mistaken, he suggested. U.S.
investment in computers, which had been increasing strongly,
dropped just as labor demand also fell, exactly the opposite of
what ought to happen if technology is replacing labor.
More likely, he said, globalization is to blame, hurting
demand for domestic labor and, like technology, helping to
reshape the labor landscape. While in the long run both
globalization and technology should in theory benefit the
economy, he wrote, their effects are "frequently slow, costly,
(Reporting by Ann Saphir; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)