‘Why Are We Doing This to Ourselves?’ Workers Respond to Threat of Automation and Job Loss

automation-job-lossHow should we address job loss caused by automation? Offer a universal basic income? Put the brakes on technological development? Cut back on the workweek? Provide more education — or change the very nature of education? Raise the minimum wage — or lower it?

These questions are becoming more and more common.  The Emery Reddy blog has covered the impact of automation on unemployment over the years, generating some fascinating comments and ideas from readers.  Recently, the New York Times ran an article about what many economists regard as the crisis of our times: how to support people who are out of work because their jobs have been automated. This trend is actually the #1 cause of job loss in our time – a bigger factor than trade, offshoring or immigration.  NT Times readers had a lot to say in response to the feature piece. Here are some sample comments:

Some readers questioned capitalism, and whom it’s supposed to serve:

John Ranta, New Hampshire

The myth is that companies are “job creators.” There isn’t one company out there that wants to create jobs. Jobs are expensive; they reduce profits. Every company is driven to cut jobs, because employees are an expense, a drag on profits. The ideal company is one that has no human workers. All capital, no labor! This is the natural outcome of capitalism. Is it what we want?


Forgotten is that the promise of automation was easier, more meaningful work for everyone, with shorter hours and workweeks, and safer, better-paying jobs. What happened? The C-level executives kept all the profits from productivity gains for themselves. Greed is killing the golden goose of the robust American economy.

Others questioned the motives of the tech industry:

Jeff Robbins, Long Beach, New York

As a species, we’re supposed to be on top of the smart pile. But is there any other species that is pushing the delete button on itself? We need to step back from the ads and techno-cheerleaders and ask: Why are we doing this to ourselves? Who exactly is benefiting from all the jobs automation is eliminating up and down the line of skill? For now, elite technologists are raking in the money. But even they are not immune to machine-learned replacement.

Many readers thought the solution was education, but disagreed on the value of a college degree:

Marc Turcotte, Keller, Tex.

The bottom line solution is education. The reality is that if you only have a high school level education or worse, don’t even graduate from high school, then you will be unemployable.

Max, New York

It is time we discarded the fiction that just getting a college degree is going to make a difference. First of all, it is at least four years spent learning humanities or science, which will only be of benefit to a few. Second, it is creating a lot of debt, which then cramps the standard of living of the college graduate for many future years. What is needed is a return to the free public vocational high schools and trade schools of the past, where men and women can learn skills necessary in today’s society, and which can be rapidly turned into income-producing work. Training in technology, computers, medical devices, plumbing, car repair, etc.

Others thought the minimum wage was the problem, but disagreed on whether it should be raised or eliminated:

Steve B., Belgrade, Maine

A decent minimum wage would cushion the blow of going from an industrial job to a service job. Forty-five percent of all American workers are paid less than $15 per hour. Simply raising their salaries will improve their standard of living. No gimmicks, government programs, etc.

Andrew Myers, Cambridge, Mass.

Jobs have disappeared because the minimum wage is too high. If workers cannot deliver value commensurate with their wage, there will be no job; the robots will take it. Better to get rid of minimum wage entirely so everyone has a job and the self-respect and self-development that come along with it.

Many readers thought the nature of work should change, like shortening the workweek or improving fast-growing service-sector jobs:

Childofsol, Alaska

The standard workweek was set at 40 hours in 1940. With machines doing so much of our work, it is probably time to start decreasing the standard workweek.

Michael Merrill, Princeton, N.J.

The solution lies in raising the standards of service-sector workers, enabling those who care for human needs to make a decent living doing so. This will not happen by fiat or regulation. Service-sector standards will only be raised by structural changes in the labor market.

Others thought the government needed to step in, like providing a universal basic income or a stronger safety net:

Michael Tyndall, SF

We should ensure we have more robust safety nets in urban and rural communities, and we should also test the practicalities and economics of a basic living stipend for all citizens. Increasing populations of unemployed and homeless citizens is a recipe for increasing crime, substance abuse and ultimately civil unrest. It’s a lot to do, but fortunately we’re not broke.

C, Greensboro

We can’t be a country that requires every man to pull himself up by his bootstraps and then snatch his boots away.


Some readers suggested less population growth:

JMWB, Montana

The only way that job losses due to automation would be a good thing is if the population expansion rate dropped to zero or less. We have way more people than good jobs for those people.

And at least a few readers warned that the problem was only just beginning:

Martin Green, San Diego

Automation is in its infancy. This coming from a man who has been creating factory automation since 1989. We are just getting started. Any activity that requires only a physical presence will be automated. Store checkers? Uber drivers? Laborers of all sorts, you are warned. Your job will disappear within your lifetime. Start now, right now, to develop new skills. What can a human do that a computer cannot do? Higher-level reasoning. Even those jobs will be eliminated in 30 years as systems become cognitive. What will develop is a society similar to the antebellum South, with systems replacing human slaves. The owners will live well. Everyone else will struggle. Which future is yours?

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