What Americans’ Fear of Automation Reveals About Our Broken Economy

June 13, 2018

Why This Matters is a series from Roosevelt staff connecting our individual work—from papers to reports and everything in between—to our broader vision of creating a better, more equitable economic and political system. This series will give readers the top takeaways from our latest writing and thinking, with a focus on why they matter as we redefine the rules that guide our social and economic realities.

The reality of employment for people across the country is much different today than it has ever been before. Everyday Americans are facing unique—and deep—labor market challenges, such as stagnant wages, dwindling employer-provided benefits, and declining unionization rates. The promise of social mobility through employment relationships is no longer available to most. Over the past 40 years, the economy has changed in ways that predominantly serve the wealthy and powerful few, all the while leeching workers’ ability to have agency in their workplaces. As a result, everyday people—especially communities of color—around the country are being left behind in these shifting dynamics. There is no question that economic insecurity is on the rise: As a whole, the labor market is much less secure than it was in the past.

In our 21st century economy, one growing concern is that technological change will inevitably lead to fewer jobs and lower wages. In Don’t Fear the Robots: Why Automation Doesn’t Mean the End of Work, Roosevelt Fellow Mark Paul challenges the narrative that large-scale technological change—or automation—will inevitably and imminently lead to mass unemployment and economic insecurity. Ultimately, Paul’s paper points to an important conclusion: Forestalling technological progress is both counterproductive and insufficient to address Americans’ increasing fear of income instability.

To truly tackle the issues that individuals and households across the country are facing, we need to look more closely at the broken link between wages and productivity—itself a symptom of the twin forces of increased power at the top of our economy and declining worker agency below. Between 1980 and 2013, executive pay at American firms rose by 937 percent. But despite record profits and increased productivity, wages have remained stagnant; though the average worker was 75 percent more productive in 2016 than in 1973, earnings rose just 12 percent. For women and people of color, today’s economy has been especially harmful: The gap between the median income of white and black households, for example, has expanded from $19,000 in 1967 to approximately $27,000 in 2012.

Robots are not the villain in today’s high-profit, low-wage economy. Rampant market power, extractive corporate behavior, deep racial exclusion, and weakened worker power are. These outcomes—including the potential consequences of increased automation—are not inevitable. We can reshape the rules, policies, and institutions of our economy, not only to ensure that technological change benefits us all but also to rebalance power within our society overall.