Learning from the First Era of Automation, Preparing for the Next

Will the automation revolution destroy work as

we know it? Or will it bring about a utopian, machine-assisted economy where

more people thrive? 

Brookings takes a more nuanced view in a recent

summary of its analysis

of the effect of machines and artificial intelligence on the future of work.

The headline on the summary, “Automation

won’t bring an apocalypse – but that doesn’t mean it will be easy,” reveals

the complexity of the outlook.


The analysis begins with a look back. Researchers

who analyzed the first three decades of “IT-driven automation,” from 1980 to

2016, found the ratio of jobs to workers actually increased, with the economy

adding 54 million net new jobs. However, the research found that era was “one

of traumatic change, defined especially by the ‘hollowing out’ of the labor

market, with employment and wage gains coming only at the high and low ends of

the skill distribution.”


One result, Brookings researchers concluded,

was that millions of middle-skill jobs were displaced, shifting many into

low-wage service employment: “In short, the first wave of digital automation

very likely contributed to the decline of the middle class, the explosion of

inequality, and perhaps even the 2016 election backlash.”


Looking ahead

Brookings argues that lessons of that period are

a warning to take steps to avoid repeating amplifying the disruptions from past



The analysis predicts roughly 25% of U.S.

employment is at high risk of displacement by automation. The good news is that

education remains a hedge against obsolesence, with a prediction that only 6%

of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree face high threat of displacement.


However, the forecast predicts certain

geographic, occupational and demographic groups face the greatest risk. Vulnerable

groups include those in low-wage jobs, minorities, young workers, and those in “Heartland

states” such as Michigan and in smaller cities. And because they tend to hold

more jobs in production, transportation, construction and installation, men

face more risk of displacement than women, according to the forecast.


“Hence our mixed take,” the Brookings researchers

write. “While the near future doesn’t seem to portend a job apocalypse, our

forward-looking analysis hardly provides comfort — especially not for the

nation’s most vulnerable people and places. Instead, the future warrants



Recommendations from Brookings

The full

report from Brookings concludes with recommendations in five major

agendas for employers, industry associations, education and policymakers:

  • Embrace growth and technology, including running a full-employment economy, boosting job creation with public investment and increasing research and development funding for AI and associated technologies.
  • Promote a constant learner mindset by investing in reskilling, expanding certifications, aligning and expanding traditional education and fostering “uniquely human qualities.” 
  • Facilitate smoother adjustment by supporting displaced workers and developing employment subsidy programs.
  • Reduce hardships for struggling workers by reforming and expanding income supports and reducing financial volatility for workers in low-wage jobs.
  • Mitigate harsh local impacts, including through supporting resilience of regions hurt by technological change and helping regions adopt intelligent technology.

Doing our part in West Michigan

That second recommendation from Brookings – promoting

a constant learner mindset – is a reminder of one of Talent 2025’s key

objectives to build West Michigan into a top 20 employment region.


One of our foundational goals is to ensure at

least 64 percent of adults 25 and older have at least some college,

including non-degree certificate programs, by 2025. Our working groups have

long recognized that lifelong learning is essential in a knowledge-based



Additionally, our Workforce

Development Group has previously highlighted barriers that keep job-seekers

struggling and out of the workforce. (You can read a summary

here, with links to one-page reports on addressing Education and

Skills, Child Care, Transportation and Substance Use.) As noted by Brookings, lower-wage

workers and underrepresented demographic groups are more vulnerable to disruption

through automation. This emphasizes the need to address barriers to employment

and career advancement.

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