May 27, 2016

Robots unlikely to replace most human labor, says OECD study

Automation is unlikely to destroy large numbers of jobs, according to a new study published by the OECD.

Researchers from the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) found that across the 21 countries that are members of the OECD, 9% of jobs are automatable.

This is much lower than some previous estimates, including Frey and Osborne (2013) who predicted that 47% of jobs in the US could be computerized.

However, the authors warn that low-qualified workers are likely to bear the brunt of the job losses that do result from automation. They argue that the challenge is therefore to cope with rising inequality and provide retraining for workers on low wages.

To arrive at their estimates, the researchers looked at how susceptible specific tasks are to automation, rather than occupations as a whole, which they say has led to an overestimation of the threat to jobs in the past.

They also argue that the share of jobs that could be automated does not necessarily equate directly to job losses, as workers adapt to changing circumstances and new technologies can also create jobs.

Harvard’s Richard Freeman has written for IZA World of Labor about the challenges posed by technology replacing human labor. He argues that automation can actually improve worker well-being by raising incomes and creating more leisure, but cautions that to benefit workers will need to own shares in capital; for example, through stock options. He writes that: “Without ownership stakes, workers will become serfs working on behalf of the robots’ overlords.”

The OECD working paper, The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries, can be accessed here.

Related article:
Who owns the robots owns the world by Richard B. Freeman