Are Robots Competing for Your Job? | Jill Lepore | The New Yorker

Christoph Niemann

“The robots are coming. Hide the WD-40. Lock up your nine-volt batteries. Build a booby trap out of giant magnets; dig a moat as deep as a grave. “Ever since a study by the University of Oxford predicted that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence over the next fifteen to twenty years, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the future of work,” Andrés Oppenheimer writes, in “The Robots Are Coming: The Future of Jobs in the Age of Automation” (Vintage). No one is safe. ”

Source: The New Yorker

Michel Baudin‘s comments:

In this article, Jill Lepore skewers the countless gurus who, for the past 100 years, have been predicting a future in which robots have eliminated all jobs, manufacturing or not. While Lepore does not go back that far, “Robot” is a word from science fiction, specifically Karel Čapek’s 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots. In this play, robots actually kill off humans.

Unemployment since 1991

If robots had actually had a massive impact on jobs, it would certainly show in the employment statistics. As seen in the following figure it doesn’t, at least in the world’s 6 largest economies.

While the curves of different countries are at different levels, they don’t show an increase over the past 30 years. Comparisons between the levels of unemployment among countries, however, are not as meaningful as they appear.

The national statistics bureaus don’t define “unemployed” the same way. The maximum number of hours worked per month to be counted as unemployed are not the same, women’s participation in the work force varies, and the bureaus have varying levels of political independence.

Changes in unemployment rates since 1991

On the other hand, we can assume that, in any given country, they calculate these numbers the same way every year. As a result, we are better off comparing their variations over time.  

In the following figure, we pinch all the country curves to a common starting point in 1991. Then we plot the relative changes from that year on.

Of the six countries, China is the only one to show a near doubling, as a one-step rise in the early 2000s. According to the ILO, however, “in China, the indicator of employment in the aggregate economy-wide sense is of limited value.”  

Japan’s unemployment is slightly higher in 2019 than in 1991, with wild swings in between, due to the long recession of the 1990s and the financial crisis in the late 2000s, not robots. The other 4 countries all show lower unemployment in 2019 than in 1991.

During these decades, manufacturers closed factories and laid off workers. This disrupted the lives of individuals and communities but mostly for causes unrelated to robots.


All the above charts say is that society as a whole created more jobs than it destroyed. What we have been living through is an example of Schumpeter’s creative destruction, not a science fiction dystopia.

Your job and my job may be threatened by robots but there is no evidence, even from the recent past, that they increase overall unemployment. This, however, does not prevent anyone predicting it yet again. 

#robot, #automation, #employment