The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the workplace. Many who could work from home got accustomed to telecommuting. Companies that relied on workers to do physical labor had to figure out how to safely keep things running. According to The New York Times, the latter caused a “wave of automation.”
Many companies have decided to stick with the work-from-home model. It’s unclear if automation trends will continue at the rate we’re seeing today, but the jobs that have been automated aren’t coming back.
Daron Acemoglu, an economist at MIT, studies automation trends and the future of work. He tells The News Station some of the changes caused by the pandemic will have ripple effects.
“This is going to be another blow to the hospitality industry,” Acemoglu says.
He notes more people working from home means restaurants, bars and other businesses that relied on office workers may see fewer people visiting their establishments. Furthermore, the hotel industry, the airline industry and many other industries that cater to business travelers may also see fewer customers.
“One aspect that I think is definitely not going to come back is people flying around for a two hour meeting at the other end of the country,” Acemoglu says. “That was quite an important part of the business of some of the hospitality industry.”
As for automation, the pandemic appears to have accelerated something that was already on its way. Robots are becoming more capable of completing complex tasks, and A.I. systems are beginning to replace more and more white collar workers. There’s a big debate over how big an impact automation will have and who will be affected, and Acemoglu says there’s reason for concern.
“The hope of many people — I think without evidence — is somehow things are going to work out, and A.I. and other digital technologies are going to bring a lot of jobs automatically,” Acemoglu says. “My research has been focusing on essentially the opposite of that. We don’t see that. There’s nothing automatic about that process.”
According to Acemoglu, the people who will be most affected by automation will be non-college workers. People who are college educated may be able to redirect themselves if they lose work due to automation because they likely have certain skills the market finds desirable. Non-college workers, he says, will probably have a much harder time.
A.I. will replace workers in legal services, financial services, office management and beyond, and Acemoglu says he’s not sure it will create that many jobs. The people who lose work to this kind of automation likely wouldn’t be qualified for whatever jobs it does create.
“I just don’t see that the current trajectory is going to be doing much that’s beneficial for non-college workers unless we do something to redirect investments in A.I. and digital technologies,” Acemoglu says. “The evidence, from my work and work from others as well, is that all of these automation technologies have been bad news for workers in the middle and the bottom of income distribution.”
A stronger social safety net and more opportunities to get an education would be helpful to deal with this problem, Acemoglu says, but that’s not all we can do. He says we need to reconsider the path we’re currently on and decide if it’s the right path in the first place.
Historically, automation has always hit the poor and the middle class the hardest. We’re already dealing with historic income inequality today, and automation threatens to make things worse. There are many things we can do to deal with the effects of automation, or we could simply change course, but the course we’re currently on is leading us to a lot of human suffering and possibly even a destabilization of the country itself. A nation filled with disgruntled, desperate people is not a healthy one.
“These economic trends will undermine democracy,” Acemoglu says. “That’s my biggest worry.”