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Automation and jobs

Summary:
I am often asked to opine about whether automation will destroy all the jobs. Yes, we talk about tractors, which brought farm employment from something like 70% of the country at the beginning of the 20th century to about 3% today. And cars, which put the horse drivers out of business. And trains, which put ...

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I am often asked to opine about whether automation will destroy all the jobs. Yes, we talk about tractors, which brought farm employment from something like 70% of the country at the beginning of the 20th century to about 3% today. And cars, which put the horse drivers out of business. And trains, which put the canal boats out of business.

A more recent case occurred to me. This is what offices looked like in the 1950s and 1960s:

Typing Pool. Source: Getty Images

This is a "typing pool." There used to be basketball-court sized rooms that looked like this, all over the place, staffed almost exclusively by  women.

Then along came the copier -- many of these women are copying documents by typing them over again with a few sheets of carbon paper -- the fax machine, the word processor, the PC. And that's just typing. Accounting involved similar roomfuls of women with adding machines. Filing disappeared. Roomfuls of women used to operate telephone switchboards, now all automated.

This memory lives on in the architecture of universities. All the old buildings have empty hutches for secretaries.

If you are prognosticating in about 1970, and someone asks, "what will happen now that women want to join the workforce, but office automation is going to destroy all their jobs?" It would be a pretty gloomy forecast.

What actually happened: Female labor force increased from 20 million to 75 million. The female participation rate increased from below 35% to 60%. Women's wages relative to men rose -- they moved in to higher productivity activities than typing the same memo over a hundred times. Businesses expanded. And no, 55 million men are not out on the streets begging for spare change.


Automation and jobs
Civilian Labor Force Level: Women

Automation and jobs
Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate: Women

I'm simplifying of course. And surely some people with specific skills -- shorthand, typing without making mistakes, and so on -- who could not retrain didn't do as well as others. But the magnitude of the phenomenon is pretty impressive.

Update. So did women just take all the men's jobs? As MC points out, the male labor force participation rate did decline, from 87.5 to 70.0. That's a big, worrisome decline. But it's 15 percentage points, while the women's increase was 25 percentage points.

But even if women are moving in and men are moving out of employment, that does make the case that you don't just look at who has what jobs now threatened by automation! The typing pool got better jobs.

Please (please!) keep in mind the point here. No, this is not a post about all the ills of the labor market, and "middle class" America, and all the rest. Yes, there are plenty. The narrow point is, will automation mean that all the jobs vanish. In this case, even combined with a large expansion of the people wanting to work, it did not.


Automation and jobs

Also the male labor force expanded from 45 million to 82 million. So the idea that there is a fixed number of jobs and if women take them men lose them is not true.

Automation and jobs

John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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