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Why Worry About Automation?

In previous periods of technological displacement of workers, economists like John Maynard Keynes and Wassily Leontief worried that too few new jobs would be created to prevent higher long-term unemployment. Today, facing an onrushing wave of digital automation, many share their misplaced unease.

HANGZHOU – From the Luddite movement in the early nineteenth century to the writings of prominent economists like John Maynard Keynes and Wassily Leontief generations later, the prospect of automation has always raised serious concerns about jobs. Keynes and Leontief doubted there would be enough jobs left for workers to do. Today, facing an onrushing wave of digital automation, many share their unease.

The impact of today’s digital technologies on the labor market raises three questions. Will there be enough jobs for workers to do? Where will these jobs be? And will the compensation be high enough to avoid an increase in poverty and inequality?

The answer to the first question is unequivocal. Historical evidence shows that labor-replacing technological innovation does not lead to long-term changes in employment and unemployment rates in industrial countries. Keynes talked about “technological unemployment,” and there is no doubt that in the 1920s and the subsequent Great Depression, one of the biggest causes of unemployment in Britain was the decline of coal and other industries in the face of competition from Germany and the United States. Workers’ skills and geographic location ruled out quickly redeploying them elsewhere in the economy. But that transitional episode eventually passed.

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