How Will Emerging Computers Affect Older Workers by 2040?

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This series of briefs, based on a synthesis of the existing literature, explores the extent to which machines could threaten the economic security of older workers over three timeframes – since the Industrial Revolution; since the rise of computers in the 1980s; and over the next 20 years. The analysis supports several conclusions. Over the long run, laborsaving machines have driven tremendous economic growth and coexisted with a growing market for labor. Despite the long-run benefits, progress has not been painless for workers, as each wave of innovation has created laborsaving machines that have disrupted jobs. Each time, workers replaced by machines have faced difficult short-term transitions, but, through retraining and career changes, have eventually found jobs in rising industries. Since the 1980s, the benefits of computers have generally gone to those with a college degree, and the overall impacts of automation on younger and older workers have been similar. Looking ahead, the effect by age is likely to remain relatively unchanged over the next two decades, while the effect by education is likely to be even more pronounced, with the least-educated workers increasingly exposed to the risk of being replaced. This latter group may turn to jobs that allow them to rely on humans’ natural social skills, an area that is less susceptible to automation.