“Why Are There Still So Many Jobs?” The Case for the Persistence of ‘Middle-Skill’ Employment

Thanks to Alainco for providing a link to this Subreddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/Technostism/ ) which focuses on something called “technostism”, which looks at technology itself as creating a new economic system, distinct from socialism, capitalism, etc.

There are a number of interesting articles on that forum, and one that caught my attention is titled: “Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation” written by David H. Autor and published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

It’s a long article which challenges the assumption that increased and more sophisticated automation will inevitably lead to fewer and fewer jobs. Autor accepts that automation will continue to increase, and that more and more tasks will be carried out by machines, but that there will be a continued need for humans to do tasks that they are uniquely suited for.

From the article:

“Whether the technology is tractors, assembly lines, or spreadsheets, the first-order goal is to substitute mechanical power for human musculature, machine-consistency for human handiwork, and digital calculation for slow and error-prone “wetware.”

“Given that these technologies demonstrably succeed in their labor saving objective and, moreover, that we invent many more labor-saving technologies all the time, should we not be somewhat surprised that technological change hasn’t already wiped out employment for the vast majority of workers? Why doesn’t automation necessarily reduce aggregate employment, even as it demonstrably reduces labor requirements per unit of output produced?

“These questions underline an economic reality that is as fundamental as it is overlooked: tasks that cannot be substituted by automation are generally complemented by it. Most work processes draw upon a multifaceted set of inputs: labor and capital; brains and brawn; creativity and rote repetition; technical mastery and intuitive judgment; perspiration and inspiration; adherence to rules and judicious application of discretion”

For an example, Autor looks at the impact on ATM machines on bank-teller jobs. In the United States ATMs were introduced in the 1970s and the number of them quadrupled between 1995 and 2010 — from 100,000 to 400,000. However there was an increase in the number of bank tellers employed grew from 50,000 in 1980 to 55,000 in 2010. There were fewer tellers per bank branch, but more branches overall, and the tellers were doing less of the laborious money counting, and more “relationship banking”, building customer relations, and acting as counselors and salespersons for a variety of bank services.

Another example he provides is the Google driver-less car. It can operate well only in the environments it is programmed by human engineers to drive in, and if something unexpected shows up, or it finds itself in an unfamiliar place, it requires a human to take over the controls: “Thus, while the Google car appears outwardly to be adaptive and flexible, it is somewhat akin to a train running on invisible tracks.”

Autor’s overall claim is that automation will continue to allow machines to do more routine labor-intensive work, there will be a continued need for humans to occupy what he refers to as “middle-skill” jobs, which require a broad-based education and which “will combine routine technical tasks with the set of nonroutine tasks in which workers hold comparative advantage: interpersonal interaction, flexibility, adaptability, and problem solving.”

As technological advances increase, and automation becomes more sophisticated, there will be a continued need for judicious application of these technologies. Some expect that the time will come where it will be machines, not humans who will make the key decisions on how technology is to be implemented — where artificial intelligence eventually wins out over human intelligence, and we will be at the mercy of the machines we have made. I’m not so sure about that. Maybe a large part of the work that will be done in the future will focus on trying make sure our machines, robots, computer programs, etc. are used for productive, safe and beneficial purposes.

  • NB: the article came from Mark S


    and I found the reddit from that ….

    where I disagree with technocist is that they imagine it is not capitalism…

    I think it is real capitalism, not the one mixed with statism that Marx denounced and which led to Ford, Rockfeller and Fed bank.

    anyway, that is a backstage debate, their approach is what I support.

    Basic income, capital for everybody…

    the article in fact is attacking that technocist dream a little, in that it says work will not disapear.

    for me the nature of work will go back to what we observe in emerging countries, where poor people are as much informal capitalist as salary earner.


    I also expect people to have complex careers…
    for example crazy, or hard, beginning of life, either working in risky entrepreneurship, adventure, or simply hard work…
    then move toward more capital intensive income, and finally ending ones life as rent capitalist or shareholder.

  • Warthog

    Bingo. The unique factor of the human mind is the ability to create. That creativity can express itself in a multitude of ways….both as art and as technology, and often as mixtures of both. This is a factor that I don’t see machines gaining any time in the near future, or even at all.

    • what human can do is use the robots, the computer, to deliver.
      Human may not be allowed to drive, but they can teach cars to drive, or run a taxi company, or a taxi company factory (uber)…

      finally they can simply buy bots with money earned with other surviving jobs, like care, human contacts, leisure support job.

      as said in the article it is probable that new job may emerge, like bot manager, bot package assembler, bot need discovery…

      I just feel that people will be less exploited like flesh-bots… even with low IQ/EQ people will be exploited as brain and hearts. hearts who care, hearts who dare. brain that exploit bots , and don’t compete with them.

      for me once the annoying jobs who treat you like bot, there will be a huge increase in leisure jobs.
      you will not manufacture cars, but you will skydive with fearful girls, race with teenage boys, walk in Apalache mountains with urban tourists…

  • Mark S.

    Some think that is not the case this time. Watch “Humans Need Not Apply”

    He goes through the idea of going to brain jobs then when that looks like it’s not an option this time then he goes to “creativity” which also doesn’t work.

  • georgehants

    If one assumes a given productivity needed then ——
    10 people with 100 hours of work needed a day = 10 hours work per person per day
    10 people with 10 hours of work needed = 1 hour of work per person per day.
    Costs do not change, if one includes the work hours needed to manufacture and ,maintain said robots which one can assume would be done by robots.
    The only question seems to be, maintain capitalism and create worthless pointless jobs so that a few can be very rich and powerful and the vast majority are kept under control.
    Find a new system that allows the needed work to be shared fairly and the populations to live better more prosperous easier lives choosing their own direction in life.

    • mcloki

      The conversion to a less hours per week yet high income economy is going to be needed. It’s going to take long timeframe major rethink or a quick bloody revolution. IN the past humanity has always taken the bloody revolution path. I hope this time. It chooses wisely.

      • Omega Z

        Yes, in the past they revolted & afterwards they wondered where all the wealth went. Thus we have myths of great wealth being hidden away & movies about such. “National Treasure” with Nicolas Cage for example.

        King Phillip IV owed much debt to the Templar Knights. His intent was to destroy them & confiscate their wealth. Thus owing them nothing & having their wealth as well. They found very little. He did not realize that he had already obtained near all their wealth & had already spent it. Much like all Governments today. Most of the wealth only exists on paper I.O.U.’s

        • Ryan

          And unfortunately his assertions are only true until we develop systems that can learn and adapt on the fly. (Note that we already have systems that can learn tasks). At that point we can have simple AIs doing much of the decision making and thus we lose a large number of positions that will not be replaced. And I guarantee that once simple AIs are achieved more complex ones will come down the pipeline and they will be able to do pretty much anything we can do and beyond. At that point we are unnecessary, at least as a workforce. Oh, but there will be new jobs for us I keep hearing, that those AIs will learn in seconds and not have any of our detractions to handle them.
          Work to survive, if clung to as a concept necessary for Humans and that is the system we currently employ world wide, will end up with a large portion of Humanity starving to death in the streets and that’s the positive outlook if new modalities aren’t explored. The reality is that if a large subsection of the populous is out of work and can’t get work to survive they will then turn on the social structures and tear them down, and lots more people will die and in this case likely some of the ones that decidedly would deserve to would however society would still collapse. Now I know there are some types that would love that. They nearly drool at the notion of us going back to a dark age whether they moronically believe them to be a simpler time or see other people as leeches not worthy of any dignity or rights or whether they feel they could hold positions of power over those that survive the fact remains the same, those people should never be allowed to be in any position of power ever.
          As we advance towards accessing resources in our solar system (of which there’s only about a billion times more than we could ever hope to get on Earth just in our solar system) resources will cease to be an issue. Heck, the asteroid that just passed by Earth was projected to have about 5 trillion in rare earth metals. One asteroid. And have no doubts we are moving towards the technology that would allow us to mine and collect resources off Earth.
          We are also quickly moving towards nanomanufacturing. We have robots at the millimeter scale now that can act as builders and these are a test base to start moving downwards in scale. Once we have true nanomanufacturing/construction we will have much more efficient usage of materials as well and could even mine junk yards and garbage dumps for raw materials, just having the nanites separate them out and reapply them to other uses.
          Add in LENR as a power source that is far more efficient and compact as well as decentralized and you have a cascade of events that make our current political and economic systems outmoded. Is this all going to happen tomorrow? No. But the technology is moving forward and it coalesces towards a point in time where our current modality will not only be considered defunct, it’ll be considered barbaric. Sadly too many fall into the narrative that we’re the best we can ever be right now and nothing better can ever exist, you know just like so many felt about their now defunct ideology time after time in the past, and they will inevitably act like an anchor on the rest of us, clinging to ideologies that should rightfully die off.

        • mcloki

          The great wealth hidden meme away also gets exacerbated with stories of the 32 trillion in offshore accounts.

    • GreenWin

      George, these social issues will become “programmable” if we confirm our universe is little more than a computer simulation. In that case, we need to sit down with our wizards and demand more realistic programming. We could start with the absurd dissolution of honest journalism, industrial science, pharma, misanthropic racism, etc. etc.

      Living in a computer simulation means our lives, like the markets, are “rigged” by the overarching code. This destroys any notion of free will, or spontaneous action. And it is the underlying reason for collective failures like “consensus science” and AGW hysteria. Were we NOT living in such a sim, AGW would have died 20 years ago. It’s all rather unhappy. Inspiration – motivation cannot survive in such an artificial environment.

      • georgehants

        GreenWin, I have to ask first, do you keep up with the Research on NDE, reincarnation etc. and I don’t mean that reported on Wiki-Rubbish etc.
        Ref. the Holographic book I mentioned forget it, it is complete rubbish, if you send me a cheque for half the cost as I have saved you buying it. that would be OK. Ha.

        • GreenWin

          Hi George, I do try to follow NDE as it coincides with new work on consciousness. As I posted earlier my sense is their are two levels of “reality” – one is an analog continuum, the other digital. Digital is a simulation of analog consciousness. IMO, analog is unfettered by programmer bias and therefor more interesting and open. Maybe next life we get a choice!

          • georgehants

            Do you mind if I call you Green, GreenWin seems a little formal these days?
            Enough for tonight, just say, if it is a sim, hologram, digital, analog etc. then it all comes down to the motivations of the creator.
            This we can only speculate from the little knowledge that we gain from areas far away from traditional science.
            We may discuss those areas and what they can tell us.

    • capitalism itself hate pointless job as it reduce efficiency.

      what you describe is current situation with alliance between social-democracy and rent-seeking–crony-capitalism.
      the alliance is
      “protect our economic rent and we will give job to your electors”.

      note that producing the same quantity of goods with less workers is not reducing global wealth… question is only who get the benefit…
      it is typically shared between :
      – client who have better purchase power
      – employees who have better wages
      – shareholders who have better dividends

      if like in the world I support, people are partially capitalist, and if workers own most of capital (via retirement fund, via savings, via entrepreuneurship, via self employment) then most of the population will benefit from less job…
      they will have more vacation, or will consume more cheaper goods, with money earned as wages, dividend.

      the problem of sharing is that today people living from wages don’t own enough capital. note that if you account for pension funds, this is less a problem (except in France where we refuse to own shares for our retirements).

      • Omega Z

        (except in France where we refuse to own shares for our retirements)

        The option to own is available to many here in the U.S., But a large portion of people refuse to take part. They opt for the small short term gain overlooking the long term large gain. It is only when retirement time arrives that they realize their error in thinking.

  • Independent Experimenter

    I don’t think that robot productivity is efficient. It lowers the cost of production so much that nobody takes the time to address if it is efficient to supply what the market demands.

    Back then, when work was human labor intensive and expensive, you had to really think about what you were about to buy or sell because a lot of effort went into it. The economy catered to needs more than wants.

    Now, there is a market for every tantrum and folly. We can produce things efficiently but is it efficient to produce all of them ? The notion that something is an extravaganza or an exuberance is fading away. We appreciate nothing that we have. And the disparity between the rich and the poor is getting wider and wider.

    Given that a man’s labor cost is another’s income and consumption, the notion of efficiency is a destructive myth.

    • LilyLover

      A notion of efficiency is the essence of liberation from drudgery.
      The immorality that requires “work” for the enjoyment of objects and vacations, the immorality that demands “interest” on fiat money, the immorality that assigns the lower credit scores to the people from whom money is siphoned to the people with higher credit score, the immorality that prevents mandatory universal 100% free medical care including cosmetic surgeries – in the guise of “fairness” is the destructive myth.
      Not appreciating anything material that we have, ought to be the goal. I.e. when all the stuff becomes valueless and meaningless, only then can ‘what matters’ will matter.

      This is a fight that we have to fight against the lethargy and entrenchedness of the likes of you, for your children’s benefit.

  • georgehants

    We do not need to wait for the robots, by removing capitalism now millions of worthless, pointless jobs would be removed, ready to share the only jobs that matter, to maintain or improve on the production and services for everybody.
    Capitalism does nothing for society except create inequality and keep millions working for no point whatsoever.
    Unfortunately so many people are fooled into believing that work is necessary beyond the needed production, services etc. that the people should decide they want, not politicians etc.
    Nothing would change regarding wealth etc. except everybody would be well off from a basic and those that do more for society are fairly rewarded, but only sensibly.
    Absolutely no inheritance, every child starts from the same place, no favoritism, nepotism, advantage, only the cleverest and hardest working children succeed to gain more if they wish it, not because one’s parents are rich for generations etc.
    Problems yes but only ones that everybody can think of solutions to, it they simply put their minds to it.
    Cold Fusion and many other things would not be hidden for profit or politics, there would be no point, thousands of scientists would be working immediately to bring Cold Fusion to maturity, to help everybody.

    • Warthog

      Nice socialist fantasy. Unfortunately, history shows that the REAL results of “applied socialism” are abject poverty, rampant oppression, and mass murder (160MM people and still counting).

      • georgehants

        Hi, Warthog are you referring to the past dictatorships, or as I to a new fully democratic system that to my knowledge has never been in existence?

        • Warthog

          Since you have totally refused to enter into any discussion as to what your “democratic system” would consist of (despite being asked multiple times to do so), I am obviously NOT referring to that (whatever it might be).

          But to pick at least two examples…..Venezuela and Nazi Germany. Neither of those were dictatorships. Both were voted in “democratically”. I suspect if I did a bit of research, I would find others. Perhaps I should add that dictatorship is another one of the inevitable results of socialism.

          • georgehants

            I am always happy to discuss any subject, so why you would attack me like you have is strange.
            I think it clear that both your examples turned out to be dictatorships, in no way reflecting the system I have commented on above.
            Could you show how you arrive at such an odd conclusion as that in your last sentence?
            Taking the points of your comment together it would seem that a way needs to be found to introduce a new fair system that avoids the fears you have.

          • Warthog

            It is odd that you consider the simple pointing out of historical reality as an “attack”. Multiple historical social experiments in many flavors of socialism have been tried. All have failed. Most have deteriorated into dictatorial regimes, even those that started as democratically elected. It has happened so frequently that there is even a cliche describing it….”one man, one vote…..once”. The VERY few that didn’t become tyrannies collapsed economically.

            What is so special about your particular (never described) system that will be different, and why?

          • georgehants

            In answer to your last question my comments over time, the one above especialy outline my position exactly.
            You clearly do not agree with my thinking so I think we will just leave it that we agree to disagree.

          • Warthog

            The “original one above” is just wishful hand-waving. How is your “system” sufficiently different that it will avoid the known
            pitfalls and succeed where all other attempts have failed???

            The simple historic fact is that the track record of socialism is far, far worse than that of capitalism at its worst (much less today’s democratic capitalism). Compare today’s Germany, Japan, South Korea, Formosa to today’s self-proclaimed socialist countries like Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea. Look at China, which is moving very rapidly from the hardest-core sort of socialism toward capitalism. Are things there getting better, or worse???

          • Independent Experimenter

            Why don’t you get rid of communism in China, turn it into a nationalist democracy and see what happens.

            Be careful what you wish for. >:-)

          • Warthog

            I think China as a capitalist democracy would be just fine. I think the Chinese realize that they can get far more by being merchants than by being “racist conquerors” a la pre-WWII Germany and Japan.

          • Independent Experimenter

            The historical reality is that capitalism kills more people through structural violence than communism through state violence.

          • Warthog

            Really??? Show me the data. I have seen exactly zero evidence to support that proposition. The death toll of socialism at >160MM and still rising is well documented by Rummel.

          • Independent Experimenter

            Communism works, it eliminates people like you so it can advance forward. No problem with that.

  • LilyLover

    “Systems that learn already exist.”

    You are not a consultant in the AI industry, if you were, you’d already know it.

    System that learn is still a pipe-dream.

    Medical algorithms (brains of the “learning” program) are provided to the programmers by people like brother. Then various robots can use it.

    Let this paradigm shattering reality of today set you free from the hallucinations of mass media about “learning systems” or “AI”.

    Over and out. On this topic – you are wrong.

  • Bernie Koppenhofer

    The example given about bank tellers does not convince me of the authors premise. GDP grew from 6.5 Trillion to 15.0 Trillion from 1980 to 2010 130%. Bank tellers increased by 10%. I
    tend to agree with Mat Lewan on this subject:


  • Daniel Maris

    I think he’s being naive.

    Firstly, he doesn’t seem to realise that already computers/robots are already surpassing highly skilled humans. For example it has been found that computers are better at diagnosis than humans. If you can go to the next stage and have a robot doctor, then there is no reason why tens of thousands of GP doctors could not be replaced.

    Secondly, he underestimates the impact of automated driving. Even if what he says is true about Google’s vehicle (not altogether sure that is accurate), then such vehicles will still be able to operate safely on motorways/freeways without drivers.

    Thirdly, I think he underestimates how many millions of jobs are going to be wiped out in catering, retail, warehousing and call centres by robots.

  • Anon2012_2014

    In the long run, machines will supplant all jobs except where we value human interaction, i.e. the teacher, the barista, the performer, the nurse. (I don’t buy this “middle level job complexity” inability for the machines to do the task. Better AI can be programmed for that too. The author Autor is study relates to the past, not the future.)

    The machine capital will be the primary factor of production and labor will be a small secondary factor.

    The question is who will own the machine capital in a world where most people don’t have to work.

    I propose eliminating labor tax and replacing them with a tax on capital earnings (both capital gains and regular earnings). Limit the patent duration to very short term and by policy encourage that purchasers of the machine capital should pay a fair markup, i.e. 20% of the cost of those robots and E-CATs, rather than the monopolists (e.g. 5000% markup) that only the already rich could afford. The returns on the robotic capital are essentially very high in todays goods and services, i.e. $50K of robotic capital could make all your food, shelter, clothing, transportation and entertainment forever. Rather than own individual machines, people buy the capital through funds, much like mutual funds.

    Young people without savings then work for a moderate period of time in the people to people jobs where they bank their shareholdings in the robotic capital, say 5 years full time equivalent, where after they can retire or not, at their option.

    To run the government which now consists only of people to people workers plus the robotic capital, will only cost a small tax, say 20%. No need to be progressive with the tax schedule as everyone can earn their share of the robotic capital depending on how long they want to work.

    There will still be people who are richer than others, but the only poor people will be those who refuse to work to create a sustainable robotic capital investment; i.e. those who willingly commit economic suicide.

    The machines plus the new energy devices are essentially “horns of plenty” and it is necessary to develop more efficient methods to allocate the productive resources so that people can lead decent lives.

    Finally we have the usual problems of megalomaniac sociopaths who want to gather all the capital in the world for nefarious purposes (i.e. like a Stalin or a Hitler). This can be dealt with through the usual law enforcement by existing government constitutions.

    • Daniel Maris

      I don’t think “the teacher, the barista, the performer, the nurse” are necessarily immune in this area.

      Robotics engineers can already reproduce human facial expression, physique and movement to a high degree of accuracy. Will Starbucks really employ human baristas if humanoid baristas do the job twice as efficiently and at half the cost? I think we all know the answer to that one.

      Similarly if you are an old person in need of very personal care, will you necessarily prefer a human carer – with no guarantee they will be good or compassionate – or will you prefer a robot to wipe your bottom and prepare your food (with 100% care and attention every time). [Personally I am quite attracted by the robot carer idea.]

      When it comes to performance will you want to see the human Elvis impersonator give a half way decent performance or the robot Elvis reproduce the whole thing perfectly, from timbre of voice to the karate chops? Will you want to see the third rate human violinist perform or the a humanoid violinist who can reproduce the highest standard of performance? [Personally I would want to see the robot Elvis but prefer to see a third rate human violinst thana note perfect robot violinist.]

      I don’t think we know the answers yet.

      • Omega Z

        “the teacher, the barista, the performer, the nurse”

        I agree, all are expendable. However I don’t see a wholesale elimination of these jobs. Teachers, Nurses, Doctor shortages will be supplemented by AI Bots. Movie Actors who demand 50 Million to appear in your Movie will be replaced by CGI. More reasonable people will not be replaced.

        McDonald’s wont replace all their employees with Kiosk’s or Bots. Only enough to offset major wage increases. They have to keep costs under a certain price point or no one will buy their products & no one has a job.

        There is a several reasons Robots wont replace all Jobs.
        I’m a CEO over a Factory with 2000 Robots verses I’m a CEO over a Factory with 100 employees. Which CEO obtains more prestige. Human Ego.

        People like automation, but we also like interacting with people. We get lonely, otherwise we would all be hermits. A world of robots would be the end of innovation. Bots can repeatedly do the same thing & have no need to innovate. People will always be involved.

        The real Issue is people fear the unknown & let it paralyze them from thinking forward. A reasonable person can push beyond the fear & see a different perspective. Like: An AI Bot assistant that wont let my Doctor amputate the wrong Leg.

    • Bernie Koppenhofer

      We must not deter innovation and productivity which is creating our increased standard of living. How about a negative income tax?

  • Daniel Maris

    I certainly agree that the first machine age is no guide to the robot revolution.

    A lot will depend on the extent to which humanity demands to take control of the revolution.

  • Bernie Koppenhofer

    Thank you Mark S. Very informative. Our society must have this converstaion.