The Role of Technological Job Displacement in the Future of WorkPosted on by
The future of work holds many possibilities for technological advancements, which may alter the number, quality, and stability of jobs; create new jobs that vary in skill and wage level; and fundamentally change entire industries. Such developments, including digitalization, robotics, artificial intelligence, and advanced computing, have the potential to lead to automation of unsafe tasks or reduction of hazards. While these innovations are often perceived to be favorable and may be linked to economic growth and productivity, they are also tied to unfavorable outcomes, such as technological job displacement—the elimination of jobs when human workers are replaced by technology. Indeed, despite new jobs being created, some estimates suggest that almost half of workers have automation-susceptible jobs (1, 2), and not all displaced workers may find new jobs. As such, it is critical to consider trends in technological job displacement and address resulting impacts on the safety, health, and well-being of workers.
The distribution of technological job displacement is difficult to forecast and varies by job, industry, occupation, and worker demographics. This is because tasks that are repetitive and require less interaction—making them more easily, efficiently, or safely accomplished by computers or algorithms (1)—may affect certain worker groups more than others (i.e., those in high-, middle, versus low-skill jobs). This is referred to as occupational polarization, an outcome and critical concern of technological job displacement. For instance, medium-skill jobs such as those in production, office and administration, and sales, are largely characterized by automation-amenable tasks (3-5). Conversely, occupations that are interactive or non-routine or require higher order thinking are less likely to be completely automated (6). These include both low-skill jobs (e.g., child and elder care, service industry, gardening, cleaning, transportation, and food-focused) (3-5, 7-9), and high-skill jobs (e.g., managers, technicians, accounting, and paralegal work) (3-6, 8, 10). Such trends may disproportionately impact women, younger workers, and immigrants (11, 12); limit career opportunities (13); provide fewer occupational safety and health (OSH) protections; and foster workplaces where workers who fear technological job displacement have less bargaining power, making them less likely to report hazardous working conditions.
Just as it is difficult to forecast the distribution of technological job displacement, the magnitude and pace of technological change leading to displacement is also challenging to predict. While fundamental changes to work that result from new technologies have historically created new jobs and new industries (14-18), these can be slowed by economic, legal, or societal factors, with both positive and negative implications. On one hand, if technological advancements decrease production costs and thus consumer costs, consumer demand for certain products and services may change, leading to increases in labor demand and related economic growth. Workers who gain new skills can become more competitive in the new labor market (18), coupled with benefits experienced due to changes in work arrangements (e.g., online platforms fueling the “gig” economy) and organizational design. On the other hand, productivity-enhancing technologies may result in inequitable benefits to society. The current debates and concerns regarding fully autonomous vehicles being used to replace human drivers (including those who do so for a living) is an example of the challenges that new technologies may face, including public acceptance and understanding, and the development of risk and liability standards (19).
In the center of all this uncertainty, human workers continue to do their jobs, weighing choices which are not new or unique to technological job displacement, but are more at the forefront of public discourse. Studies have found that fears about limited employment opportunities, perceptions of job insecurity, and anxiety about the need to acquire new skills have exacerbated, leading to public health crises such as widespread increases in depression, suicide, and alcohol and drug abuse (including opioid-related deaths) (12, 13, 20-23). At the same time, the accelerated use of new technologies, recent shifts to increased remote work, and alterations in labor markets experienced globally (9, 24) have offered new opportunities while further impacting worker well-being in positive, negative, and still nuanced ways (25).
Would you like to learn more about the OSH implications of technological job displacement? Join us on Thursday, February 24, 3-4pm EST for a webinar: The Role of Technological Job Displacement in the Future of Work, featuring Dr. Naomi Swanson from CDC/NIOSH and Ms. Shannon Meade from the Emma Coalition and the Workplace Policy Institute. Register here to attend this free webinar presented by the NIOSH Future of Work Initiative.
Missed previous webinars in the series? You can watch them here.
To learn more about the NIOSH Future of Work Initiative, please visit its website.
NIOSH has identified technological job displacement objectives for the future. Tell us what technological job displacement needs you have at your workplace in the comment section below.
Chia-Chia Chang, MPH, MBA is a Coordinator in the NIOSH Office Total Worker Health® and the NIOSH Healthy Work Design and Well-Being Cross-Sector Program.
Sara L. Tamers, PhD, MPH is Coordinator of the NIOSH Future of Work Initiative, Coordinator of the Total Worker Health® Program, and Assistant Coordinator of the Healthy Work Design and Well-Being Program.
Naomi Swanson, PhD, is a Senior Science Advisor at NIOSH.
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