MIT and Boston University researchers have found that industrial automation is strongly correlated with unemployment and economic inequality in the manufacturing centers of the United States, taking more jobs away than immigrants or increased foreign imports.
MINNEAPOLIS– While the media and numerous politicians have often blamed Midwestern unemployment on illegal immigration, a new study asserts that the advent of factory robots is the most significant factor in the steep reduction of available jobs in what was once the U.S.’ industrial heartland.
The study, conducted by researchers from MIT and Boston University, found that the increasing automation of U.S. factories that took place from 1990 to 2007 significantly affected employment and worker pay, largely impacting the lower half of wage distribution and thus contributing to greater economic inequality. The authors concluded that robots exert “large and robust negative effects” on employment and wages in the areas surrounding the factories where they are used. They found that the addition of just one robot leaves 6.2 workers jobless and reduces the average annual wage by 200 dollars.
According to the study’s authors:
“The employment effects of robots are most pronounced in manufacturing, and in particular, in industries most exposed to robots; in routine manual, blue collar, assembly and related occupations; and for workers with less than college education. Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, we do not find positive and offsetting employment gains in any occupation or education groups.”
Essentially, this study has confirmed what many critics of the mechanization of the workforce have long stated – that robotic workers only make life easier for wealthy corporate executives while negatively impacting the economy and job climate as a whole.
The study also found that most of the jobs lost to robots were heavily concentrated in only a few industries, particularly the automotive industry, which utilizes 39 percent of all industrial robots. Other major industries with high rates of mechanization include the electronics industry (19 percent), plastics and chemical manufacturing (9 percent) and metal products (9 percent). It is therefore not surprising that most of the jobs lost to industrial automation have been in areas that have traditionally been home to such industries, such as the “Rust Belt” – an economic region comprising the once dominant industrial states of Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
However, far more troubling than the impact that the mechanization of U.S. factories has had in years past is the threat it presents to the future. While the researchers found that only 360,000 to 670,000 jobs had been lost to robots during the 17 year duration of their study, the authors estimated that an additional 3.5 million jobs could be lost within the next decade alone, a troubling result that would further decimate the precarious position of the U.S. economy and workforce.
In addition, it is more than just manufacturing jobs that are in danger of being lost to machines, as advances in robotics are allowing the machines to accomplish a much wider variety of tasks than the robots referenced in the study above. U.S. government researchers recently found that robots are likely to replace almost 47 percent of all U.S. jobs by 2036.
Another recent study by researchers from the World Economic Forum found that robots will claim five million U.S. jobs – most of them “routine white-collar office” jobs – as soon as 2020, just three years from now. In addition, the U.S. government is set to introduce robotic soldiers to its military within the next few years, prompting experts to suggest that the U.S. armed forces will have more robots than human soldiers as soon as 2025.
This suggests that blue-collar workers are just the first casualty in a “revolution” that could soon see a staggering number of people out of work and struggling to survive. This raises questions about whether industrial automation is beneficial for society at large – or just another way for the individuals who control automation-prone industries to increase profits at the expense of their human workers.