How automation led to stagnant wages and inequality

Worker displacement due to automation is not new and has been around since the Industrial Revolution. What’s matters now is what we do about it?

By: Bryan Walsh

Automation technology has been the primary driver in U.S. income inequality over the past 40 years, according to a new paper by two prominent economists in the field.

Why it matters: Offshoring, the decline of unions, and corporate concentration have all played a part in widening the gap between lower-skilled and higher-skilled workers, but automation is the single most significant factor, and will likely grow even more important in the years ahead.

By the numbers: The real wages of low-education workers have declined significantly over the past four decades, with the real earnings of men who lack a high-school degree now 15% lower than they were in 1980.

  • Over the same time, real wages for workers with a post-graduate degree — and to a much lesser extent, those with a bachelor’s degree — rose sharply.

The big picture: In their paper, MIT’s Daron Acemoglu and Boston University’s Pascual Restrepo calculate that 50 to 70% of the changes in the U.S. wage structure since 1980 can be accounted for by relative wage declines among workers who specialize in routine tasks in industries hit by rapid automation.

  • Workers who perform tasks that can be increasingly automated — think manufacturing work done by robots or clerical work performed by software — lose out on labor share.
  • They’re then forced to compete with other lower-skilled workers for fewer remaining jobs, further bidding down wages.
  • Higher-skilled workers have largely escaped this trap not so much because of a rising demand for those skills, but because they perform tasks that can’t be — or haven’t yet been — automated.

What’s next: More of the same, barring major political changes.

The bottom line: As Acemoglu wrote in a recent essay, “The only path out of our current predicament requires both robust regulation and a fundamental transformation in societal norms and priorities.”

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