Automation and Jobs for People

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Since the introduction of the first machines for weaving cloth and other automated processes during the Industrial Revolution, manufacturers have relied more on machines and less on humans for labor. Automation increased during the latter half of the 20th century, as computers were combined with machines to produce highly sophisticated robotic systems and other automated processes. Improvements in communication and information technology moved automation from strictly manufacturing processes to processes that involved more intellectual work. The result has been increased productivity and lower human resource costs for manufacturers and the elimination of some categories of jobs for workers. At the same time, the shift to automation has created entirely new categories of jobs for qualified workers and has allowed businesses to increase profits for their shareholders. Ultimately, society and businesses have to decide if the benefits of automation outweigh the social costs of meeting the needs of displaced workers. Although automation changes the need for labor, automation alone does not appear to contribute to unemployment.

It is easy to see why workers in some industries would feel threatened by increased automation in their area. Workers at an automobile assembly plant, for example, would be understandably upset if they discovered that they had been replaced by robots working in a fully-automated production facility. Automation has not been limited to manufacturing, but may be found in virtually all segments of the economy, including retail, financial services, medical services, and other services that at one time required the work of a human. An article written in 1993 observed that thanks to automation and the increased use of outsourced labor, “steady jobs for good pay are becoming poignant memories or just dreams for more and more people” (Barnet, 1993).

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Barnet and others who are against automation have overlooked the fact that while automation has eliminate the need for some types of human work, it has created new categories of jobs. Mark (1987) pointed out that when computers were introduced into business offices in the mid-1950s, there were predictions that businesses would no longer need clerical workers to maintain records, type letters, or do other routine office jobs. In reality, the introduction of computers led to an increase in clerical workers. These increases in the need for clerical workers occurred because of new demand for data entry and other computer-related jobs and because automation allowed businesses to produce reports and to perform other functions that would have been impractical without computers (Mark, 1987).

In the United States, the reduction or elimination of routine, low-skill jobs – the types of jobs that are replaced by automation or by outsourcing the work to offshore companies – has meant that more people are employed in better paying positions Between 1980 and 2004, the number of Americans employed in management positions increased by 80% (Ezra, 2004, p. 85). Between 1996 and 2004, per capita income in the United States increased by 20% (Ezra, 2004). Rather than reducing employment opportunities, automation has saved jobs in some industries and contributed to a reduction in unemployment (Pullin, 2006).

Instead of simply stating that automation had made good jobs a thing of the past, Barnet would have been more accurate if he had written that automation made good jobs a poignant memory for people who are unwilling to learn new skills or to adapt to a changing job market. This same need for improvement is also true for national economies. Nations that do not invest in technology or that do not allow industries to invest in processes that increase their productivity and profitability will fall behind nations that are committed to making such investments (Iversen, 2003).

Automation is a double-edged sword. On one side, automation lowers the cost of consumer goods and services. Automation also improves productivity, allowing manufacturers to produce more goods at a lower cost. In many ways, automation is what separates affluent nations from poor nations with developing economies. At the same time, automation demands that workers keep up with the pace of technology. Workers who cannot find suitable jobs to replace the jobs that were lost due to automation will suffer. In many cases, these workers will be forced to take lower paying jobs. However, while automation may have a negative effect on the income of individual workers, it has a positive effect on the overall economy of an entire nation, including reducing unemployment.

While automation may not contribute to a dramatic increase in unemployment for an entire nation, the loss of a job can be devastating for an individual worker, especially if that worker does not have the skills to move into a new work setting. Companies that use automated processes to reduce their workforce have an ethical obligation to provide retraining for those employees who are displaced. While governments should encourage manufacturers to invest in technology and should reward companies that improve their productivity, governments should also require companies to meet their ethical obligations to employees, including employees whose jobs have been replaced by automation. This assistance might include retraining, help with a new job search, and compensation to help the employee during the transition. These practices would make automation less threatening to workers who might be replaced.


  1. Barnet, R. (1993). The end of jobs. Harper’s Magazine, 287 (1720). Retrieved May 12, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.
  2. Ezrat, M. (2004). Misplaced fears: Why the outsourcing scare is overblown. The International Economy, 18, (4), 79-92.
  3. Iverson, W. (2003). Outsourcing not the culprit in manufacturing job loss. Retrieved May 12, 2008, from
  4. Mark, J. (1987). Technological change and employment: Some results from BLS research. Monthly Labor Review, 110, p.26-35. Retrieved May 12, 2008, from database,
  5. Pullin, J. (2006). Automation saves jobs. Professional Engineering,19 (21), p39-39. Retrieved May 12, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.

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