Where Will You Go When a Robot Takes Your Job?

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There's rising anxiety in the U.S. about the future of work. And for good reason. As technology and trade disrupt existing systems of production, there’s a good chance that many workers will eventually lose their jobs. But instead of trying to freeze the economy in place, the government should help people find new jobs quickly so they don't suffer any economic harm.

Americans have been hearing for years now that robots are coming for their jobs. The pandemic has probably brought those fears closer to reality by pushing businesses to invest in new labor-saving technologies. Innovations like QR code ordering at restaurants are raising productivity; that’s good for the economy overall, and will probably raise wages in the industry. But once initial labor shortages are resolved, it might be harder to find a job waiting tables when fewer wait staff are needed.

In the long run, that’s fine; people will find new jobs. The new wealth created by the labor-saving innovations will cause demand to increase; new industries will grow and expand and find things for the displaced workers to do. Thus has it always been. Unless this is the final wave of innovation that makes humankind go the way of the horse -- which seems unlikely -- it will happen again.

But in the long run, we’re all dead, as John Maynard Keynes once said. It's the short run people have to worry about, and in the short run workers have reason to fear this sort of job churn. It imposes all kinds of costs on workers and their families: uncertainty about what to do next, loss of health insurance and often the cost of retraining or moving to a new location. It seems unfair — employers just install a new machine and they’re good to go, while workers have to upend their lives. Furthermore, widespread fear of this kind of disruption could hold our nation back from embracing technological progress.

There are ways the government can help reduce this risk and defray these costs. One big example is national health insurance; when losing your job doesn’t mean losing health benefits, workers are less anxious about switching employers, and may even feel more comfortable quitting to find something better. Another example is the Danish “flexicurity” system, which provides workers with education, retraining and job-search assistance.

But while these policies would help American workers be less afraid of losing their particular jobs, they wouldn’t entirely allay the fear of being forced to change their occupation. When whole industries see technological shifts that reduce the need for labor, workers don’t just have to find new employers; they have to find a whole new trade. Even for waiters or cashiers, switching occupations can be frightening.

This is why people worried about job loss are grappling with the same question: What new jobs will be available for the displaced workers?

In the past, when jobs were less specialized, answering that was easier. When workers were displaced from farms, they got jobs in factories. When factory work dried up, they got paper-pushing office jobs, and so on. In recent decades, local services like food service and leisure and hospitality, along with health care, provided a sort of default job base. Without a better option, you could always wait tables, staff a hotel desk or check in patients at a doctor’s office.

Where Will You Go When a Robot Takes Your Job?

But as industries continue to fragment and specialization proceeds apace, it's become harder to guess where the next demand boom will come from. Even if you hear about an industry expanding, you still need to figure out what role you might play in that industry or how to get the training you’d need. That makes it tough to plan ahead. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that companies generally don’t spend a lot of effort recruiting workers at the lower end of the pay scale.

There’s scope for the government to help with this problem. The Bureau of Labor statistics actually makes 10-year forecasts of the fastest-growing occupations in percentage terms, and those that will add the most total employment. Here are the top five in each of those categories as of right now:

Where Will You Go When a Robot Takes Your Job?
Where Will You Go When a Robot Takes Your Job?

The BLS website has links to more information, such as what kind of education is needed to get these jobs. Obviously, these forecasts are subject to unexpected events like Covid-19, but they contain a lot more information than the average worker is likely to know.

I see scope for the government to do a lot more on this front. First of all, this website should become a mobile app. Second, the government should pay select employers to provide detailed information, including video tutorials, about how to get each of these jobs, as well as vetting free content from YouTube channels, Quora, and other online sources. Third, there should be a map, showing where these jobs are located.

In fact, it seems possible that in the future, the government -- perhaps in partnership with a private job-search company -- could provide a portal for employers to actually match with employees. This would be very helpful in lower-paid occupations where companies don’t bother to do extensive job searches. A law could require that all job openings be listed on the government portal.

Smart strategies like this can help workers learn to embrace technological change. If the government helps people plan their next move if and when they're no longer needed in their current job, workers will be able to roll with the economy’s punches more easily. Combined with national health insurance, education and retraining assistance -- and a robust unemployment insurance system -- it could make terror of job loss a thing of the past.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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