Advances in Automation Prompt Concern Over Increased U.S. Unemployment

AFMD-82-44: Published: May 25, 1982. Publicly Released: May 25, 1982.

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GAO performed a study of the impact of automation on employment because of concerns expressed over this issue. Automation involves the use of electronic devices to reduce the amount of work performed by people. Concerns center on whether the advancement of automation will ultimately reduce the number of available jobs and increase the rate of unemployment.

GAO found that, while current and proposed uses of automation can increase worker productivity and reduce unit cost, they can also have a significant impact on the size of the work force needed to produce the same or increased output. Automation: (1) reduces the number of people required to perform the same task, causing employee displacement; (2) changes the nature of tasks performed by those who retain their positions; and (3) creates new occupations and increases the number of jobs in existing occupations in the same or other industries. It is suggested that automation will cause job growth in almost as many different occupations as it will cause job loss. However, the absence of specific projections of changes due to automation makes it impossible to measure the overall net impact. Although automation will undoubtedly cause some loss of jobs in the short run, much debate arises over whether it will eventually cause an overall increase in unemployment, or whether more jobs will be created because of it. Opinions on the ultimate impact differ because of several factors, including the: (1) rate at which the new technology is being implemented and whether institutional or other barriers to rapid implementation will exist; (2) complexities of the issues affecting unemployment; and (3) absence of specific and comprehensive data on the net change in unemployment that has occurred because of automation. However, there is clear evidence and general agreement that, in the short run, automation does cause job displacement.

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