Technology and Underemployment: The Economists Speak

In PBS’ Nova Next, Tim de Chant just published an excellent analysis of technological underemployment called Navigating the Robot Economy. This piece distributes real-world examples with analysis by two excellent economists, David Autor and Erik Brynjolfsson, both of MIT. These economists take somewhat different views, positing a variety of mechanisms justifying just how automation may be a harbinger of displaced human labor, or alternatively how automation may help those (still) employed achieve even greater prosperity. Of course, both views of the future can come true, but then the question this begs is, just how will overall inequality be affected by the dynamics of ever-improving automation? De Chant does an excellent job in bringing together modern-day examples, including those of the auto industry and the medical industry, but also reminding us of the disruptive shifts in employment that the 1800’s saw thanks to the mechanized loom. The article is worth a careful read, but will lead you mostly with the feeling of uncertainty. Even worse, Brynjolfsson makes the convincing point that the next ten years will be far more disruptive than the last ten. And that, coming from a time when the past ten years have seen a total disentangling of company productivity and worker wages, is depressing indeed.

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