According to this Huffington Post opinion piece, it's possible that in the future the ongoing process of automation will lead to less job opportunities.

It quotes economist Paul Krugman arguing one way:

information technology would end up reducing, not increasing, the demand for highly educated workers, because a lot of what highly educated workers do could actually be replaced by sophisticated information processing -- indeed, replaced more easily than a lot of manual labor.

It also quotes (and tries to refute) economist Brad DeLong arguing another:

I don't see a problem with the number of jobs: I don't see any reason that technological unemployment should be any more in our future than it has been in our past.

Is the automation and increasing productivity leading to job losses?

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    It is difficult to predict the future, and probably impossible to do it reliably (and therefore this question may be unanswerable). My guess is that it will decrease jobs of the type that we know about today. People need to hope or expect that these will be replaced by jobs that we don't know about. My first boss, in the early 1980s at a telco equipment manufacturer, told me, "I don't know what I'll be doing in two year's time: all I know is that it will be a job which doesn't exist yet."
    – ChrisW
    Aug 4, 2013 at 11:45
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    Those are exactly the same arguments that have been done over and over again over the course of history when some new innovation has been made. In the Netherlands, workers used to trow their wooden shoes (sabots) in textile looms to break them as they feared that automation would cause loss of jobs. This is the origin of the word sabotage, and was happening in the 15th century. In the 19th century the Luddites were doing similar things. So, history is repeating again one would argue...
    – nico
    Aug 4, 2013 at 12:07
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    @ChrisW: well, but economy will adapt (and is adapting) to these new changes. Obviously it does not happen from one day to the other, but it happens eventually.
    – nico
    Aug 4, 2013 at 13:03
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    @Derfder, what sort of answer would you consider valid evidence one way or the other? We have two economists arguing. It is a topic books could be written about; what do you hope for us to contribute?
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 4, 2013 at 13:31
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    @ChrisW all that happens is that the nature of labour changes, instead of a girl plugging a switchboard she now looks at a computer screen and monitors for problems she then calls a technician to resolve. And there will always be a need for people like that, that AI will maybe take over her job but then she will be monitoring the AI.
    – jwenting
    Aug 5, 2013 at 4:52

1 Answer 1


Looking forward from 1983

From (Leontief, Wassily; Duchin, Faye. The Impacts of Automation on Employment, 1963-2000. Final Report, 1984):

[T]he intensive use of automation over the next 20 years will make it possible to conserve about 10 percent of the labor that would have been required to produce the same bills of goods in the absence of increased automation. The impact of automation is specific to different types of work and will involve a significant increase in professionals as a proportion of the labor force and a steep decline in the relative number of clerical workers. Because the direct displacement of production workers by specific items of automated equipment will, at least in the initial stages, be offset by increased investment demand for capital goods, production workers can be expected to maintain their share of the labor force.

Looking back

From (Kile, F. (2013). Artificial intelligence and society: a furtive transformation. AI & society, 28(1), 107-115.):

A steady decline of less-skilled jobs began with automation. Employment opportunities gradually declined around the globe.

Two recent agricultural developments illustrate this point: (1) One manufacturer announced development of a driverless tractor. (2) Some farms have attached a chip to their cows. The chip monitors milk production, quality, etc. The cows remain in a pasture until they feel the urge to be milked. At that point, each cow goes to a gate which then opens and from that point on, every aspect of milking is automated.

As computing advanced, the need for workers per unit of output declined, though initially output grew fast enough to mask this phenomenon.

From (Autor, D. (2010). The polarization of job opportunities in the US labor market: Implications for employment and earnings. Center for American Progress and The Hamilton Project):

The job opportunities available to males displaced from manufacturing jobs, particularly those displaced at midcareer, are likely to be primarily found in lower-paying service occupations. While these job losses may be primarily attributable to automation of routine production work and growing international competition in manufactured goods rather than to de-unionization per se, the magnitude of the income losses for males is surely magnified by the fact that the job losses are in union-intensive industries.

From (Freeman, R. (2012). Non-nano effects of nanotechnology on the economy. Nanotechnology: Societal Implications—Individual Perspectives, 68.):

For the past 50 years or so, the displacement effect of technological change has exceeded the employment-increasing effect of expansion of production. Employment declined in manufacturing and agriculture, where technological change is most rapid, and shifted toward services, where technological change is modest.

From (Hayes, B. (2009). Automation on the job. Am Sci, 97(1), 10.):

As for economic consequences, worries about unemployment have certainly not gone away—not with job losses in the current recession approaching 2 million workers in the U.S. alone. But recent job losses are commonly attributed to causes other than automation, such as competition from overseas or a roller-coaster financial system. In any case, the vision of a world where machines do all the work and people stand idly by has simply not come to pass.

Predictions about the future

There are too many predictions to list, but I'll pick a few from just one of the above references:

  • We’ll automate medicine. I don’t mean robot surgeons, although they’re in the works too. What I have in mind is Internet-enabled, do-it-yourself diagnostics. (Hayes, 2009)
  • We'll automate driving. (Hayes, 2009)
  • We'll automate warfare. (Hayes, 2009)
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  • @medivh Are you suggesting an improvement to my answer? I don't understand what the link you provided is for.
    – user5582
    Aug 4, 2013 at 18:08
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    @Sancho The link says it doesn't lead to unemployment because there's always a demand for labor. Like when 95% of us was employed as farmers to 2% of us now, it doesn't mean there's a 93% unemployment rate.
    – Kit Sunde
    Aug 4, 2013 at 22:36
  • @KitSunde But, that should be added as an alternative answer, then, not a comment to my answer. I don't see what my answer is supposed to take from the link. I didn't say that "95% of us was employed as farmers to 2% of us now means there's a 93% unemployment rate.". I just quoted studies that said things like "the displacement effect of technological change has exceeded the employment-increasing effect of expansion of production", and "As computing advanced, the need for workers per unit of output declined, though initially output grew fast enough to mask this phenomenon."
    – user5582
    Aug 4, 2013 at 22:54
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    Sancho: I think the problem here (not with your answer, but with the question) is you are quoting the economists on one side, and @medivh and the OP quoted economists on the other side, leaving the economically agnostic unable to see why the models in this answer are more accurate.
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 5, 2013 at 0:08