But only the highly educated workers are benefiting through higher
wages, wrote MIT professor David Autor in the paper prepared for a
central banking conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Middle- and
lower-skilled workers are seeing their wages decline.
That is in part because as middle-skilled jobs dry up, those workers
are more likely to seek lower-skilled jobs, boosting the pool of
available labor and putting downward pressure on wages.
"(W)hile computerization has strongly contributed to employment
polarization, we would not generally expect these employment changes
to culminate in wage polarization except in tight labor markets,"
Any long-term strategy to take advantage of advances in computers
should rely heavily on investments in human capital to produce
"skills that are complemented rather than substituted by
technology," he said.
Recounting the long history of laborers vilifying technological
advances, Autor argues that most such narratives underestimate the
fact that computers often complement rather than replace the jobs of
People with skills that are easily replaced by machines, such as
19th-century textile workers, do lose their jobs.
In recent years computer engineers have pushed computers farther
into territory formerly considered to be human-only, like driving a
Still, computer-driven job polarization has a natural limit, Autor
argues. For some jobs, such as plumbers or medical technicians who
take blood samples, routine tasks are too intertwined with those
requiring interpersonal and other human skills to be easily
"I expect that a significant stratum of middle skill, non-college
jobs combining specific vocational skills with foundational middle
skills - literacy, numeracy, adaptability, problem-solving and
common sense - will persist in coming decades," Autor wrote.
[to top of second column]
Autor, who has been studying technology and its impact on jobs since
before the dot-com bubble burst, notes that some economists have
pointed to the weak U.S. labor market since the 2000s as evidence of
the adverse impact of computerization.
Such modern-day Luddites are mistaken, he suggested. U.S. investment
in computers, which had been increasing strongly, dropped just as
labor demand also fell, exactly the opposite of what ought to happen
if technology is replacing labor.
More likely, he said, globalization is to blame, hurting demand for
domestic labor and, like technology, helping to reshape the labor
landscape. While in the long run both globalization and technology
should in theory benefit the economy, he wrote, their effects are
"frequently slow, costly, and disruptive."
(Reporting by Ann Saphir; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be
published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.