Is This Time Different? What History Says About Machines’ Impact on Jobs

IB#19-12

The brief’s key findings are:

  • Since the Industrial Revolution, laborsaving machines have helped generate enormous economic growth and new employment opportunities.
  • But machines can require painful short-term transitions as displaced workers scramble to adapt to a changing labor market.
  • Historically, workers have learned new skills for jobs in growing industries, but today’s increasingly capable robots have triggered fears of permanent job loss.
  • Despite the rise of robots, it still takes decades to fully adopt new technology, so many of today’s jobs are unlikely to suddenly vanish.
  • Subsequent studies will examine how machines have affected older workers in the recent past and the outlook for workers currently nearing retirement.