Employment and Jobs

What Do We Know About Americans’ Attitude Toward Automation?

August 22, 2019  • Ethan Pollack & Hilary Greenberg

For most of this decade, there has been a steady stream of studies predicting that automation will have profound impacts on workers. In 2013, Oxford University researchers estimated that roughly 47 percent of total U.S. employment is at high risk of computerization, while experts from the McKinsey Global Institute projected more recently that roughly 30 percent of skills in 60 percent of jobs could be automated with existing technologies. The Future of Work Initiative has also provided its own analysis of automation and how we as a society can rise to the challenge.

Not surprisingly, the conversations among academics and experts have spilled into the political discourse. Politicians and candidates are now addressing the coming impacts of technology on the workforce, with Governor Hickenlooper, Mayor Buttigieg, and Andrew Yang discussing a range of projections and potential policy responses in recent presidential debates and on the campaign trail.

Amid the analysis and solutions being put forward, there has been less attention paid to what Americans themselves think about automation. Highlighting key takeaways from recent polls and surveys on automation, we hope to shed light on the question of how Americans are perceiving the impact of this aspect of modern life on their wellbeing.

1. Overall, Americans anticipate that automation will bring more negative than positive impacts. 

According to the Pew Research Center in March 2019, 48 percent of Americans believe that automation and technology have mostly hurt American workers, while only 22 percent say it has generally helped. Similarly, 76 percent of Americans believe automation will exacerbate inequality between rich and poor Americans, and 66 percent believe it’s unlikely that widespread automation would create many new, better-paying jobs for humans.

This anxiety is spread fairly evenly across political parties and demographic groups. Nearly equal shares of Republicans (47 percent) and Democrats (49 percent) believe that automation and technology have mostly hurt American workers, while 72 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats believe that automation will increase inequality. Both Pew and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that White, African American, and Hispanic respondents were roughly equally likely to view automation negatively. However the Joint Center found that Asian Americans were significantly more positive toward automation. Moreover, Americans with greater educational attainment tend to see automation in a slightly more positive light: 53 percent of respondents with high school or less say automation has mostly harmed workers, compared to 42 percent of respondents who have earned a bachelor’s degree.

Americans are so concerned that 85 percent favor policies to limit automation to jobs that are dangerous or unhealthy for humans and prohibit automation in other jobs, as indicated in a 2017 survey by Pew. Similarly, 58 percent of Americans believe there should be “limits on the number of jobs businesses can replace with machines, even if they are better and cheaper than humans.” The wide difference between the responses to the two questions also suggests that respondents are highly sensitive to question wording.

Support for restricting automation is evenly split between political parties. Eighty-six percent of Republicans and 85 percent of Democrats support restricting automation to dangerous or unhealthy jobs, while 60 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans support limits on the number of jobs businesses can replace with machines, according to Pew in 2017.

2. Despite anticipating widespread automation, most Americans do not fear automation’s potential impact on their own jobs.

Research from Pew indicates that 82 percent of U.S. adults say that robots and computers will definitely or probably do much of the work currently done by humans by 2050, but only 37 percent of employed adults say robots or computers will do the type of work they do over this same period.

However, interpreting this finding is difficult because respondents may not be thinking about partial automation versus full automation, and how they perceive the question could change their responses. After all, McKinsey estimates that less than 5 percent of jobs are fully automatable with existing technologies, but 91 percent of jobs are partially automatable.

In addition, in a survey by Northeastern University and Gallup released in June 2019, Americans indicated that they are relatively confident that their skills will not become outdated. Just 35 percent of Americans believe their skills will be outdated in the next 9 years, compared to 57 percent in Canada and 58 percent in the U.K. In a new global survey from MIT Sloan, 45 percent of respondents from 21 major cities noted that they expect their own jobs will be automated within the next decade.

3. Americans are concerned that current institutions are failing to prepare workers.

In the Northeastern and Gallup survey, 95 percent of Americans noted that learning over the course of their careers is more important than pursuing a one-time advanced degree. But large majorities believe that businesses, government, and higher education institutions are not responding adequately to the need for lifelong learning. This response is consistent with data showing that business and government investment in training has fallen in recent years.

If their skills become outdated, U.S. workers believe that community and technical colleges (38 percent) and employers (36 percent) are best equipped to provide career-long education and training, while few (15 percent) would look to traditional four-year universities, according to Northeastern and Gallup.

Pew’s recent survey asked a similar question but provided different answer options, and found that 39 percent of Americans believe individuals have a responsibility to acquire the necessary skills and training to compete in the economy.

The case for action

National surveys show that Americans are very concerned about automation, do not believe that the workforce is prepared, and believe that employers, community and technical colleges, and workers themselves are key to retraining and adapting skills to respond to the changes automation may bring to their jobs. Our recent report, Automation and a Changing Economy, proposes a set of policies that address these challenges—but also seek to capture the opportunities of automation.

While automation does present challenges, it should continue to be an important driver of growth and job creation, including in new occupations and industries never before imagined. We have proposed a Worker Training Tax Credit to incentivize businesses to increase their training investments in their workers and a variety of policies—including Lifelong Learning and Training Accounts, career counseling, and better data on training program quality—to make it easier for workers to pursue skills training on their own. And, while we encourage the adoption of new automation technologies, we propose new forms of worker voice and ownership to guide automation in the direction of benefiting workers rather than simply replacing them. With the proper support structures in place, we can promote opportunity and prosperity for all.


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