Points of View

Learning from the First Era of Automation, Preparing for the Next

Alex Andrews

Will the automation revolution destroy work as we know it? Or will it bring about a utopian, machine-assisted economy where more people thrive? 

Brookings takes a more nuanced view in a recent summary of its analysis of the effect of machines and artificial intelligence on the future of work. The headline on the summary, “Automation won’t bring an apocalypse – but that doesn’t mean it will be easy,” reveals the complexity of the outlook.


The analysis begins with a look back. Researchers who analyzed the first three decades of “IT-driven automation,” from 1980 to 2016, found the ratio of jobs to workers actually increased, with the economy adding 54 million net new jobs. However, the research found that era was “one of traumatic change, defined especially by the ‘hollowing out’ of the labor market, with employment and wage gains coming only at the high and low ends of the skill distribution.”


One result, Brookings researchers concluded, was that millions of middle-skill jobs were displaced, shifting many into low-wage service employment: “In short, the first wave of digital automation very likely contributed to the decline of the middle class, the explosion of inequality, and perhaps even the 2016 election backlash.”


Looking ahead

Brookings argues that lessons of that period are a warning to take steps to avoid repeating amplifying the disruptions from past decades.


The analysis predicts roughly 25% of U.S. employment is at high risk of displacement by automation. The good news is that education remains a hedge against obsolesence, with a prediction that only 6% of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree face high threat of displacement.


However, the forecast predicts certain geographic, occupational and demographic groups face the greatest risk. Vulnerable groups include those in low-wage jobs, minorities, young workers, and those in “Heartland states” such as Michigan and in smaller cities. And because they tend to hold more jobs in production, transportation, construction and installation, men face more risk of displacement than women, according to the forecast.


“Hence our mixed take,” the Brookings researchers write. “While the near future doesn’t seem to portend a job apocalypse, our forward-looking analysis hardly provides comfort — especially not for the nation’s most vulnerable people and places. Instead, the future warrants concern.”


Recommendations from Brookings

The full report from Brookings concludes with recommendations in five major agendas for employers, industry associations, education and policymakers:

  • Embrace growth and technology, including running a full-employment economy, boosting job creation with public investment and increasing research and development funding for AI and associated technologies.
  • Promote a constant learner mindset by investing in reskilling, expanding certifications, aligning and expanding traditional education and fostering “uniquely human qualities.” 
  • Facilitate smoother adjustment by supporting displaced workers and developing employment subsidy programs.
  • Reduce hardships for struggling workers by reforming and expanding income supports and reducing financial volatility for workers in low-wage jobs.
  • Mitigate harsh local impacts, including through supporting resilience of regions hurt by technological change and helping regions adopt intelligent technology.

Doing our part in West Michigan

That second recommendation from Brookings – promoting a constant learner mindset – is a reminder of one of Talent 2025’s key objectives to build West Michigan into a top 20 employment region.


One of our foundational goals is to ensure at least 64 percent of adults 25 and older have at least some college, including non-degree certificate programs, by 2025. Our working groups have long recognized that lifelong learning is essential in a knowledge-based economy.


Additionally, our Workforce Development Group has previously highlighted barriers that keep job-seekers struggling and out of the workforce. (You can read a summary here, with links to one-page reports on addressing Education and Skills, Child Care, Transportation and Substance Use.) As noted by Brookings, lower-wage workers and underrepresented demographic groups are more vulnerable to disruption through automation. This emphasizes the need to address barriers to employment and career advancement.