While emerging technologies can improve the speed, quality, and cost of available goods and services, they may also displace large numbers of workers. This possibility challenges the traditional benefits model of tying health care and retirement savings to jobs. In an economy that employs dramatically fewer workers, we need to think about how to deliver benefits to displaced workers.
The impacts of automation technologies are already being felt throughout the economy. The worldwide number of industrial robots has increased rapidly over the past few years. The falling prices of robots, which can operate all day without interruption, make them cost-competitive with human workers. In the service sector, computer algorithms can execute stock trades in a fraction of a second, much faster than any human. As these technologies become cheaper, more capable, and more widespread, they will find even more applications in an economy.
The recent trend towards increased automation stems in part from the Great Recession, which forced many businesses to operate with fewer workers. After growth resumed, many businesses continued automating their operations rather than hiring additional workers. This echoes a trend among technology companies that receive massive valuations with relatively few workers. For example, in 2014 Google was valued at $370 billion with only 55,000 employees, a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in the 1960s.
Experts disagree on the size of the impact that automation technologies will have on the workforce. While some warn of staggering unemployment, others point out that technology may create new job categories that will employ displaced workers. A third group argues that the computers will have little effect on employment in the future. Any policy measures that address the future of employment must account for the uncertainty of outcomes on employment.
If automation technologies like robots and artificial intelligence make jobs less secure in the future, there needs to be a way to deliver benefits outside of employment. “Flexicurity,” or flexible security, is one idea for providing healthcare, education, and housing assistance whether or not someone is formally employed. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, providing a guaranteed basic income, and encouraging corporate profit-sharing are some ideas that need to be considered in the case of persistent unemployment.
Perhaps the most provocative question raised by the paper is how people will choose to spend their time outside of traditional jobs. “Activity accounts” could finance lifelong education or volunteering for worthy causes. Working fewer hours will enable some to spend more time with friends and family, or on creative pursuits. No matter how people choose to spend time, “there needs to be ways for people to live fulfilling lives even if society needs relatively few workers.”
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