David Autor – American economist
Here’s a startling fact: in the 45 years since the introduction of the automated teller machine, those vending machines that dispense cash, the number of human bank tellers employed in the United States has roughly doubled, from about a quarter of a million to a half a million. A quarter of a million in 1970 to about a half a million today, with 100,000 added since the year 2000.
These facts, revealed in a recent book by Boston University economist James Bessen, raise an intriguing question: what are all those tellers doing, and why hasn’t automation eliminated their employment by now? If you think about it, many of the great inventions of the last 200 years were designed to replace human labor.
Tractors were developed to substitute mechanical power for human physical toil. Assembly lines were engineered to replace inconsistent human handiwork with machine perfection. Computers were programmed to swap out error-prone, inconsistent human calculation with digital perfection.
These inventions have worked. We no longer dig ditches by hand, pound tools out of wrought iron or do bookkeeping using actual books. And yet, the fraction of US adults employed in the labor market is higher now in 2016 than it was 125 years ago, in 1890, and it’s risen in just about every decade in the intervening 125 years.
This poses a paradox. Our machines increasingly do our work for us. Why doesn’t this make our labor redundant and our skills obsolete? Why are there still so many jobs? I’m going to try to answer that question tonight, and along the way, I’m going to tell you what this means for the future of work and the challenges that automation does and does not pose for our society.