White House Predicts Robots May Take Over Many Jobs That Pay $20 Per Hour

The robots are coming! The robots are coming!
David Ramos via Getty Images

The White House is worried that robots are coming to take your job.

In a report to Congress this week, White House economists forecast an 83 percent chance that workers earning less than $20 per hour will lose their jobs to robots.

Wage earners who receive up to $40 in hourly pay face a 31 percent chance they'll be replaced by robots, while workers who are paid more than $40 an hour face much lower odds -- about 4 percent -- of losing their jobs to automation.

The estimates underscore the myriad threats facing low-wage workers in America, who in recent years have been buffeted by stagnant wages, decreasing employment prospects and higher education costs if they wish to obtain additional credentials in pursuit of better-paying jobs.

In an economy increasingly defined by the yawning gap between rich and poor, White House economists worry that increased automation could exacerbate inequality as the well-paid enjoy the fruits of robot-fueled gains in productivity while everyone else is left to fight for scraps.

One study cited by the White House found that automation has particularly hurt middle-skilled Americans, such as bookkeepers, clerks and some assembly-line workers. A lack of additional training and education opportunities led these workers to settle for lower-skilled positions, and likely lower wages.

Already, the White House noted in its report, most economists reckon that changes in technology are "partially responsible for rising inequality in recent decades."

Robots and other advances in technology are forecast to displace a significant number of blue- and white-collar workers, according to 48 percent of experts surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2014. They also said that robots and so-called digital agents will displace more jobs than they create by 2025.

Many experts surveyed by Pew said they are concerned that the rise of robots and other technological advances "will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order."

It's not a new worry. The famed economist John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930 about "technological unemployment," or the theory that workers could be displaced due to society's ability to improve labor efficiency at a faster rate than finding new uses for labor.

But White House economists said they don't have enough information to judge whether increased automation will help or hurt the U.S. economy. For example, new jobs could emerge to develop and maintain robots or other new forms of technology.

"While industrial robots have the potential to drive productivity growth in the United States, it is less clear how this growth will affect workers," the White House said in its report.

There are two important questions, according to White House economists. First, if robots replace existing workers, will workers have enough bargaining power to share in their employers' newfound gains? Second, will the economy create new jobs fast enough to replace the lost ones?

Falling union membership -- some 11 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a union last year, down from about 20 percent in 1983 -- suggests that workers may not have much power to demand higher wages from employers who are automating them out of a job.

The economy could create enough new, good-paying jobs to help those displaced by robots, but the plight of manufacturing workers who have lost their jobs in recent decades as manufacturers moved abroad suggests that this, too, could be a challenge.

Instead, according to the White House, the key is to maintain a "robust training and education agenda to ensure that displaced workers are able to quickly and smoothly move into new jobs." With most Americans now financing higher education through debt -- about 1 in 8 Americans collectively owe $1.3 trillion on their student loans -- amid an era of sluggish wages, it's unclear whether higher debt burdens will lead to a better economic future.

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