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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In 2013, two young Oxford University researchers ignited a provocative debate with a landmark forecast that 47% of U.S. jobs are vulnerable to automation. Since then, experts around the world have relentlessly argued whether the new age of robots will wipe out whole classes of jobs, or create a unique time of machine-human partnership.

Driving the news: Though few appear to have taken notice, leading researchers have reached important conclusions.

They include that:

  • Robots so far are destroying many more jobs than they are creating.
  • But it doesn't have to be that way — if humans realize they are in charge, and take control of what the machines are generally aiming to do.
  • One way to understand is to look at the recent debate over globalization: Rather than scorched-earth trade, open borders could have been optimized to preserve the living standards of affected U.S. communities. Similarly, humans can decide what role machines will play in society.

"It is a matter of choice how much we get to invest in replacing workers and how much in complementing workers," said Daron Acemoglu, an influential scholar on automation at MIT.

  • "Some people say robots will destroy more jobs, others that it will create more, but the agency we have is de-emphasized," he tells Axios. "When you look at the recent and more distant past, you see how important the choices are that firms, governments and people make."

The big picture: In a way, we are in a heyday for employment. In the U.S., the jobless rate has been near a half-century low at or below 4% for more than a year. Almost anyone who wants a job — including the stubbornly unemployed, felony convicts and workers with a drug record — can get one.

Wages, too, have been climbing beyond the rate of inflation: Since 2015, workers have carved out real pay increases every month on average, a change from the prior decade, when they routinely lost money to inflation, according to government data.

But economists say they are surprised that wages are not rising more robustly, given how very tight government figures say the job market is. That reveals other conclusive facts about current and perhaps future jobs:

  • We may not be in a tight job market at all. Instead, the market is tight in some places, but with considerable flab elsewhere.
  • This includes lots of people who are working part-time or in gig jobs when they want full-time work, and others underemployed in full-time jobs, according to a 2018 paper by the University of Stirling's David Bell and Dartmouth's David Blanchflower.

If you remember one thing: There is no "future of work." Instead, we are in the midst of a gigantic and painful economic transition that began four decades ago and could go on for years and decades longer, as we have reported.

What's next:

  • Work of all types is at risk — low- and higher-paying, from drivers to cashiers, investment advisers and paralegals, says Al Fitzpayne, executive director of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute.
  • If you want to tell your kids anything, advise them to get some digital training: From 2002 to 2016, the number of U.S. jobs requiring high levels of digital skills more than quadrupled, from 5% to 23% of total employment. And the number of jobs requiring little digital skills fell from 56% to less than 30%, according to the Brookings Institution.

The bottom line: One of the most wrenching experiences of the current age has been falling out of the middle class. It's what underlies much of the disaffection and anger across the U.S. and Europe.

  • So that, while humans are taking charge of robots, they have to make an affirmative decision whether public policy should more or less require a middle-class wage, suggests Benjamin Pring, head of Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work.

Go deeper

Updated 46 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Ipsos poll: COVID trick-or-treat.
  2. World: Greece tightens coronavirus restrictions as Europe cases spike.
  3. Economy: Conference Board predicts economy won’t fully recover until late 2021.
  4. Education: Surge threatens to shut classrooms down again.
  5. Technology: Fully at-home rapid COVID test to move forward.
  6. Travel: CDC replaces COVID-19 cruise ban with less restrictive "conditional sailing order."

Trump's legacy is shaped by his narrow interests

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

President Trump's policy legacy is as much defined by what he's ignored as by what he's involved himself in.

The big picture: Over the past four years, Trump has interested himself in only a slim slice of the government he leads. Outside of trade, immigration, a personal war against the "Deep State" and the hot foreign policy issue of the moment, Trump has left many of his Cabinet secretaries to work without interruption, let alone direction.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
4 hours ago - Technology

AI and automation are creating a hybrid workforce

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

AI and automation are receiving a boost during the coronavirus pandemic that in the short term is creating a new hybrid workforce rather than destroying jobs outright.

The big picture: While the forces of automation and AI will eliminate some jobs and create some new ones, the vast majority will remain but be dramatically changed. The challenge for employers will be ensuring workforces are ready for the effects of technology.

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