Task Automation and Jobs

Will automation and robotics replace most workers across the world? Which industries are at the greatest risk? What will societies do with and for people who lose their jobs? What can individuals, families, churches, and communities do to help?

By Mark D. Harris

By the 1920s, the automated production line, new tools, and the principles of “scientific management” had dramatically increased worker productivity in the US. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that productivity would increase so much that in 100 years, his grandchildren would need to work only 15 hours per week (Bessen, 2020). This has not happened, of course, because of the vaster array of goods and services now produced, the much larger number of people those products are produced for, and the skyrocketing expectations of consumers throughout the world.

More recently, voices in business, labor, and the general population, have decried automation and robotics as job killing. CNBC reported in 2019 that 25% of US jobs, especially the “boring and repetitive ones,” were at risk for vanishing due to automation (Nova, 2019). Such predictions frighten workers and introduce a list of questions and policy problems. Whose jobs are likely to go? How can we retrain these people into jobs through which they and their families can thrive? What degree of safety net do we need to have for these people in the meantime? Will robots and other types of automation decrease the human need to work so much that in the future, Keynes will be right? Will we all be working 15 hours per week, or less?

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