Opportunity, policy, and the future of automation

Source: Marcus Casey and Ashleigh Maciolek, Brookings Institution, December 21, 2020

Despite persistent fears that robots and computers are coming for our jobs, most labor market experts agree that fears (or hopes) for a future where work will be optional, or worse, extremely scarce due to technological change are unlikely. In rare instances, such as the elevator operator, jobs will be rendered completely obsolete. Most jobs, however, will still exist even if fundamentally changed in both task content and form. Technological change will create new tasks and jobs as well.

The productivity and efficiency gains of technological change will be a net positive for society. However, this does not mean we have no reason for concern. First, the availability of work for all who seek it is a precondition for a prosperous and equitable society. Advances in automation and AI have the potential to magnify many of the challenges currently facing our society: income and wealth inequality, concentration of corporate power, reduced upward mobility, and persistent disability, gender, and racial discrimination. Mitigating potential negative tradeoffs of technological change will require new public policy paradigms to ensure that the most at-risk segments of the population are not left even further behind.

To that end, the Future of the Middle Class Initiative at Brookings hosted an event exploring these topics. A two-part panel first considered the role and design of social insurance programs and second, discussed how to foster social mobility and ensure equity of opportunity in the face of automation. The panelists identified key public policy challenges in a technology-driven economy and offered potential non-incremental solutions to best support low and middle-income Americans.