The Century Foundation Releases Report: How Robots Are Beginning to Affect Workers and Their Wages

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Century Foundation Releases Report: How Robots Are Beginning to Affect Workers and Their Wages

Much has been written about the rise of robots and the potential impacts of automation on the economy. Yet most analysis tends to be prospective in nature, and estimates of future impacts on employment vary widely, with some studies predicting that as many as 50 percent of all workers are at risk of losing their jobs to automation. Even less is understood about the actual impacts of robots on jobs, wages, and workers today. While more recent studies have begun to measure these effects, the results here, too, are mixed.

This report analyzes the impact of robots in the years following the Great Recession, from 2009 to 2017—a period of significant, steady job growth and economic recovery, as well as one in which the use of robots in the U.S. workplace more than doubled. The report’s findings, summarized below, offer new insights that can help inform ongoing debates about the future of work and the impact of automation.

The first takeaway is that robots are, indeed, coming—but there is little evidence (yet) that robotic growth is leading to widespread job displacement, as some have predicted. That said, there are winners and losers with automation. While robots may have negligible effects on national employment as a whole, certain industries and regions are more impacted by robotic growth, and particular groups of workers disproportionately suffer the negative effects of this growth. It is also the case that job losses from robotization may have little impact on total employment, as displaced workers find other jobs (especially in a strong economy with low unemployment), even if at lower pay. Lastly, we find that the economic boom of the past decade has effectively “masked” some of the impacts that robots have had on workers. It’s not that robots weren’t displacing jobs—it’s that the overall economic expansion was large enough to offset some of these job losses.

Key Findings

1. Trends in Robot Growth
We constructed a measure of the use of robots—commonly referred to as “robot intensity”—to estimate trends in robot exposure across more than 250 metropolitan areas and over time, finding that:

  • During the Great Recession, robot intensity plummeted. But since 2009, robot intensity has sharply increased nationwide.
  • States in the Midwest (the East North Central, or ENC, census division)—Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin—consistently have the highest robot intensities, typically at least twice the intensity of all other regions.
  • Midwest (ENC) states also experienced the sharpest growth in robots since 2009.
  • Robot intensity in manufacturing industries greatly exceeds the national average:
    • Since 2009, the number of manufacturing robots has more than doubled—from 0.813 per thousand workers to 1.974 per thousand workers.
  • Highly unionized states have much lower robot intensities than states with low rates of unionization.

2. Impact of Robots Varies across Workers
We assess the impact of robot intensity on the employment and earnings outcomes of non-college educated men and women, finding that...

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