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OM in the News: The Changing Workforce

January 24, 2014

jobsIN 1930, John Maynard Keynes worried of a new disease: “technological unemployment…due to our discovery of means of economizing the use of labor outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor.” Now, 2 Oxford professors are arguing that jobs are at high risk of being automated in 47% of the occupational categories into which work is sorted. That includes accountancy, legal work, technical writing and a lot of other white-collar occupations.

Automation processes have steadily and relentlessly squeezed labor out of the manufacturing sector in most rich economies, writes The Economist (Jan. 18-24, 2014). As we note in Chapter 1, the share of U.S. employment in manufacturing has declined sharply since the 1950s, from almost 30% to less than 10%. At the same time, jobs in services soared, from less than 50% of employment to almost 70% (see chart). It was inevitable that firms would start to apply the same automation to service industries.

jobs2The case for a highly disruptive period of economic growth is made by MIT profs in “The Second Machine Age.” Like the first great era of industrialization, they argue, it should deliver enormous benefits—but not without a period of uncomfortable change. They write that the amount of progress computers will make in the next few years will equal to the progress they have made since their very beginning!

The combination of big data and smart machines will take over some occupations wholesale; in others it will allow firms to do more with fewer workers. Some jobs—especially those currently associated with high levels of education and high wages—will survive (see table). Rich economies seem to be bifurcating into a small successful group of workers with skills highly complementary with machine intelligence, with the rest of workers less successful.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. In what service jobs will automation be a major factor?

2. Will manufacturing reverse its downward slope of employment?

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