Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Technological change and labor market opportunities

An age-old question in labor economics has been how technological change impacts the labor market.  The standard answer has always been that change has mixed effects, eliminating the mrket for some tasks but creating new market opportunities.  For instance computers have been deadly for typewriter repair people but have created great opportunities for software engineers. 

This week MIT economist David Autor has a NYT think piece with the misleading title "How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class."  Autor deflates what the economists call the "lump of labor" fallacy, which maintains there is only so much work to be done and any technological change reduces job opportunities.
Labor-saving technological change necessarily displaces workers performing certain tasks — that’s where the gains in productivity come from — but over the long run, it generates new products and services that raise national income and increase the overall demand for labor. In 1900, no one could foresee that a century later, health care, finance, information technology, consumer electronics, hospitality, leisure and entertainment would employ far more workers than agriculture.
But with computing costs steadily falling, will this time be different?  Autor argues that this is unlikely for the most and least skilled workers.  Computers are not ready to take over most abstract, problem-solving tasks, nor are they ready to do most service work.  Autor is worried about some middle class jobs that are routine and could be outsourced or taken over by software. But he still sees opportunity:
Middle-skill jobs that survive will combine routine technical tasks with abstract and manual tasks in which workers have a comparative advantage — interpersonal interaction, adaptability and problem-solving. Along with medical paraprofessionals, this category includes numerous jobs for people in the skilled trades and repair: plumbers; builders; electricians; heating, ventilation and air-conditioning installers; automotive technicians; customer-service representatives; and even clerical workers who are required to do more than type and file.

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