Michael Owens' breakthrough bottle-making machine, 1907. The machine displaced glass-blowers. Photo: Science & Society Picture Library / Getty.

In the 19th century, it took six decades after the Luddites for the wages of textile workers to recover from the advent of weaving machines. We are in the midst of another such gap now, according to David Autor, a pioneering labor economist at MIT.

What's happening now: Machines are creating more wealth, but workers are not getting their usual cut of the pie, Autor told Axios.

"Automation is redistributing income from workers to owners."
— Autor

Between the lines: This partly explains why American wages have been largely stagnant despite one of the tightest job markets in decades. And no one knows how long the gap will last — when workers displaced by the new automation revolution will find employment at gainful wages.

The chronology: Blue-collar misery goes back to the 1980s, when such workers began to suffer job, wage and benefit cuts, Autor said. But in the late 1990s or early 2000s, they were hit by a new phenomenon: the divvying up of the total economic pie — steady for decades — suddenly changed, and labor's share dropped, according to a new paper by Autor and co-author Anna Salomons.

  • Autor, who presented the paper last week at the Brookings Institution, said he doesn't know what caused the gap to open.

In a video produced along with the paper, Autor said people are too focused on the potential for jobs to be wiped out. "The concern should not be about the number of jobs," he said, "but whether those are jobs that can support a reasonable standard of living and what set of people have access to them."

  • There are an unprecedented number of "creative, rich, rewarding and well-remunerated jobs," Autor said.
  • But low-skilled jobs are among the most rapidly growing — in personal services, food services, cleaning, security, home health, and so on. These, he said, "are not well-paid, are not stable, and don't offer a very good standard of living."
  • Autor said, "So you could say on the one hand, 'Great we have a lot of jobs.' On the other hand, those are not the jobs we'd most like to have. So I think the concern ought to be about what is the comparative advantage of human labor in an increasingly automated world."

Go deeper

7 hours ago - Podcasts

Facebook boycott organizers share details on their Zuckerberg meeting

Facebook is in the midst of the largest ad boycott in its history, with nearly 1,000 brands having stopped paid advertising in July because they feel Facebook hasn't done enough to remove hate speech from its namesake app and Instagram.

Axios Re:Cap spoke with the boycott's four main organizers, who met on Tuesday with CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other top Facebook executives, to learn why they organized the boycott, what they took from the meeting, and what comes next.

Boycott organizers slam Facebook following tense virtual meeting

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Civil rights leaders blasted Facebook's top executives shortly after speaking with them on Tuesday, saying that the tech giant's leaders "failed to meet the moment" and were "more interested in having a dialogue than producing outcomes."

Why it matters: The likely fallout from the meeting is that the growing boycott of Facebook's advertising platform, which has reached nearly 1000 companies in less than a month, will extend longer than previously anticipated, deepening Facebook's public relations nightmare.

Steve Scalise PAC invites donors to fundraiser at Disney World

Photo: Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s PAC is inviting lobbyists to attend a four-day “Summer Meeting” at Disney World's Polynesian Village in Florida, all but daring donors to swallow their concern about coronavirus and contribute $10,000 to his leadership PAC.

Why it matters: Scalise appears to be the first House lawmakers to host an in-person destination fundraiser since the severity of pandemic became clear. The invite for the “Summer Meeting” for the Scalise Leadership Fund, obtained by Axios, makes no mention of COVID-19.