Where Will All the Workers Go?

NEW YORK – Technology innovators and CEOs seem positively giddy nowadays about what the future will bring. New manufacturing technologies have generated feverish excitement about what some see as a Third Industrial Revolution. In the years ahead, technological improvements in robotics and automation will boost productivity and efficiency, implying significant economic gains for companies. But, unless the proper policies to nurture job growth are put in place, it remains uncertain whether demand for labor will continue to grow as technology marches forward.

Recent technological advances have three biases: They tend to be capital-intensive (thus favoring those who already have financial resources); skill-intensive (thus favoring those who already have a high level of technical proficiency); and labor-saving (thus reducing the total number of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in the economy). The risk is that robotics and automation will displace workers in blue-collar manufacturing jobs before the dust of the Third Industrial Revolution settles.

The rapid development of smart software over the last few decades has been perhaps the most important force shaping the coming manufacturing revolution. Software innovation, together with 3D printing technologies, will open the door to those workers who are educated enough to participate; for everyone else, however, it may feel as though the revolution is happening elsewhere. Indeed, the factory of the future may be 1,000 robots and one worker manning them. Even the shop floor can be swept better and cheaper by a Roomba robot than by any worker.

For the developed countries, this may seem like old news. After all, for the last 30 years, the manufacturing base in Asia’s emerging economies has been displacing that of the old industrial powers of Western Europe and North America. But there is no guarantee that gains in service-sector employment will continue to offset the resulting job losses in industry.