How ‘Automation’ Made America Work Harder



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How ‘Automation’ Made America Work Harder - Zocalo

Computers Were Supposed to Reduce Office Labor. They Accomplished the Opposite

The world confronts “an epochal transition.” Or so the consulting firm McKinsey and Company crowed in 2018, in an article accompanying a glossy 141-page report on the automation revolution. Over the past decade, business leaders, tech giants, and the journalists who cover them have been predicting this new era in history with increasing urgency. Just like the megamachines of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries—which shifted employment away from agriculture and toward manufacturing—they say that robots and artificial intelligence will make many, if not most, modern workers obsolete. The very fabric of society, these experts argue, is about to unravel, only to be rewoven anew.

So it must have come as a shock to them when they saw the most recent U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report, which debunks this forecast. The agency found that between 2005 and 2018—the precise moment McKinsey pinpointed as putting us “on the cusp of a new automation age”—the United States suffered a remarkable fall-off in labor productivity, with average growth about 60 percent lower than the mean for the period between 1998 and 2004. Labor productivity measures economic output (goods and services) against the number of labor hours it takes to produce that output. If machines are taking over people’s work, labor productivity should grow, not stagnate.