Wage inequality cartoon concept with a weight scales and money weighing one side down more than the other.
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US study finds automation is a contributor to wage inequality

22 Nov 2022

MIT and Boston University researchers found that automation accounted for more than half of the increase in the income gap between more-educated and less-educated workers in the US.

A new study by researchers in the US has found that automation is a contributor to wage inequality.

Their research quantified the extent to which automation has contributed to income inequality in the US over the past few decades.

They found that the introduction of technology such as self-checkouts in supermarkets or assembly-line devices has contributed to a growing gap in wage equality.

Since 1980, the income gap between more-educated and less-educated workers has grown significantly in the US. The study suggested that automation accounts for more than half of that increase.

It estimated that automation has reduced the wages of men without a high school degree by 8.8pc and women without a high school degree by 2.3pc. These figures have been adjusted for inflation.

To conduct the study, the MIT and Boston University researchers used US Bureau of Economic Analysis statistics on the extent to which human labour was used in 49 industries from 1987 to 2016, as well as data on machinery and software adopted in that time.

Using US Census Bureau data, they tracked worker outcomes for roughly 500 demographic subgroups. These were broken out by gender, education, age, race and ethnicity and immigration status, while looking at employment, inflation-adjusted hourly wages and more.

They also used data they had previously compiled about the adoption of robots in the US from 1993 to 2014.

The study, titled ‘Tasks, Automation and the Rise in US Wage Inequality’, has been published in the journal Econometrica. Its authors are economist Daron Acemoglu, who is an institute professor at MIT, and Pascual Restrepo, assistant professor of economics at Boston University.

“If you introduce self-checkout kiosks, it’s not going to change productivity all that much,” said Acemoglu. But in terms of lost wages for employees, he said that automation has “fairly large distributional effects, especially for low-skill service workers”.

“It’s a labour-shifting device, rather than a productivity-increasing device.”

For this reason, Acemoglu believes that automation tech should be treated differently from other tech innovations in the workplace as it does not necessarily benefit everyone. He called it “so-so technology” or “so-so automation” because of the potential trade-offs.

Acemoglu and Restrepo’s research was supported in part by Google, the Hewlett Foundation, Microsoft, the National Science Foundation, Schmidt Sciences, the Sloan Foundation and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

Other research has found links between automation and job insecurity. A 2016 study by the Oxford Martin School programme and Citi on technology and employment found that developing countries had a higher percentage of jobs at risk of automation.

Around a third of jobs across Europe could be at risk from the rise of automation and 12m jobs will be lost across five European countries by 2040, according to a report from Forrester earlier this year. But it noted that new opportunities would be created in growing industries.

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea worked as a Careers reporter until 2024, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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