Skip to main content

Pandemic-fueled automation is gobbling up jobs, and we’ll never get them back

medical employee holding mask stylized image
Getty Images/Digital Trends Graphic

The COVID-19 pandemic has had massive economic impacts in the United States, and one of the problems many companies have been facing as a result is how to keep business moving along without putting employees at risk of being infected. As you might expect, one of the ways many businesses are staying operational is by automating tasks that would otherwise be done by humans. Robots, after all, aren’t at risk of dying from COVID-19.

Since the pandemic began, we’ve seen efforts to automate jobs increase significantly in the food service industry, manufacturing, meatpacking, grocery stores and beyond. Due in part to this pandemic, some economists estimate 2 million manufacturing jobs will be gone forever by 2025. We were already heading toward an era where more jobs could be automated than ever before, but COVID-19 has greatly increased the speed at which we may see that happen.

Automation beyond automatons

David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells Digital Trends he’s not surprised that we’re seeing an increase in automation efforts.

“COVID creates a kind of automation-forcing event where you have a scarcity of workers in many activities where you don’t have a decline in demand, so you’re going to kind of induce innovation,” Autor says.

“The longer this goes on, the more habits learned will persist.”

One thing Autor has been focusing on lately is how people getting used to videoconferencing is, in itself, a form of automation. He says people who are doing business over video chat instead of meeting in person means fewer people are traveling, eating out at restaurants, booking hotel rooms, leasing offices, and more. He says we could very well see a situation where many things we used to do in person are done over video chat as people get more used to operating in that manner.

“I think you’re going to see a permanent, substantial decline in business travel. The number of people who are going to cross continents for 90-minute meetings is going to fall really substantially,” Autor says. “That’s going to have very large ripple effects because business travelers are basically the tail that wags the dog of the entire hospitality industry.”

Many restaurants, hotels, airlines and other businesses rely on business travelers for a large part of their revenue, so if there are fewer business travelers because of videoconferencing, that could cause a lot of companies to go out of business or keep fewer people employed. Autor says this will partially occur because people’s habits have changed in the business world during COVID, and partially because businesses realize it’s simply more cost-effective to do things over a video chat.

“Part of it is habits. We’re going to change our habits. Part of it is we’re going to realize there were better ways to do things that were available to us that we weren’t using,” Autor says. “The longer this goes on, the more habits learned will persist.”

Revolutionizing the routine

Outside of the effects of videoconferencing gaining in popularity, we’ll also see the more traditional forms of automation continue to increase. Carl Frey, an economic historian at Oxford University and an internationally known automation expert, tells Digital Trends that there are multiple ways we’ll see automation increase.

“Companies strive to cut costs during downturns. Routine jobs, which can easily be automated, vanished during the Great Recession and didn’t come back thereafter, contributing to a jobless recovery,” Frey says. “Companies will want to pandemic-proof their operations. While e-commerce has been given a boost by social distancing, pressure has rightly been mounting on retailers of ‘nonessential’ goods to close online operations as warehouses have become overcrowded.”

amazon employee wearing mask

Frey says that there have been significant advances in developing robotic hands that can pick and sort products of varying sizes and shapes, and once that technology has been perfected, companies like Amazon will need far fewer people in its warehouses.

“The reason why warehouses still employ so many workers is that order picking remains a highly manual process,” Frey says. “But robotic hands are becoming more dexterous by the day, and A.I. algorithms are now capable of better distinguishing between objects, making automation possible.”

Amazon is the second-largest employer in the United States, and most of those employees work in its warehouses, so this could present a massive shift.

“This is a hugely economically important problem — the ability of a robot to pick up an irregular object and handle it appropriately,” Autor says. “Not damage it, not drop it, not crush it while putting it into packaging. When that happens, it will have a huge effect on Amazon’s employment level.”

“Automation has always killed jobs. That is nothing new. … The question is whether people will find better jobs.”

Many economists like to say we shouldn’t worry about automation because we’ve always adapted to it in the past, and it hasn’t created the wide-scale problems some predict could happen in the not-too-distant future. But this era of automation is different than what we’ve experienced in the past due to the fact that we’re approaching a time when robots and artificial intelligence will be able to not just automate some of the tasks you might do at a job, but quite possibly all of the tasks you do at a job.

“Automation has always killed jobs. That is nothing new. The artisan jobs that were destroyed during the Industrial Revolution never came back, nor did the farm jobs that were mechanized in the early 20th century,” Frey says. “The question is whether people will find better jobs.”

A perfect storm

Whether you’re able to find a better job as automation escalates will increasingly depend on whether or not you have enough education to get the jobs that haven’t yet been automated. Autor notes that automation has been eliminating jobs that you can get without having much education for decades.

“The U.S. labor market has been deteriorating for people with high school or lower education for a good long time,” Autor says. “We’ve been in a period of declining manufacturing employment, declining white-collar office jobs, and the labor market is much more bifurcated into high-skilled professional jobs and low-paid service activities. … It’s already the case that it’s had highly uneven and non-neutral impacts on the quality of work. I don’t, unfortunately, see anything on the technological horizon that’s going to reverse that.”

Though it sometimes seems to have been lost in history, the quality of life for many working-class Americans was significantly reduced for several decades following the Industrial Revolution. It wasn’t until the federal government significantly expanded the social safety net that many Americans saw their lives improve. If this era of automation sees the job losses and increases in income inequality many economists expect it could, the government may be forced to step in and help the working class once again.

Paul Hennessy/Getty Images

“The worry is, of course, that many low-income jobs in leisure and hospitality, and other industries, won’t return. This would mean unskilled workers competing for fewer jobs,” Frey says. “And not just against each other, but against robots as well. Our research suggests that most jobs that are likely to be automated are of lower pay.”

Frey notes that when former President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers used his team’s estimates, they found that an astonishing 83 percent of workers in jobs that paid less than $20 an hour were at “high risk of being replaced.” In comparison, workers in jobs that paid more than $40 per hour were only at 4 percent.

It’s already bad enough that we’re in a major recession, but automation increasing on top of it creates a perfect storm for working-class Americans. Autor says the likelihood the economy is going to quickly recover from all of this is very low.

“We’re going to be in a very deep hole, with millions and millions of people out of work, many businesses closed, and many people’s finances in not good shape,” Autor says. “Even if there was nothing else, it would be hard to have a quick V rebound. Even if nothing had changed. But then, on top of that, we have all of these induced changes in terms of business travel, telecommuting to work, induced automation, and the culling of a lot of smaller firms that will also have an effect.”

Editors' Recommendations

Thor Benson
Thor Benson is an independent journalist who has contributed to Digital Trends, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, NBC News and…
Why AI will never rule the world
image depicting AI, with neurons branching out from humanoid head

Call it the Skynet hypothesis, Artificial General Intelligence, or the advent of the Singularity -- for years, AI experts and non-experts alike have fretted (and, for a small group, celebrated) the idea that artificial intelligence may one day become smarter than humans.

According to the theory, advances in AI -- specifically of the machine learning type that's able to take on new information and rewrite its code accordingly -- will eventually catch up with the wetware of the biological brain. In this interpretation of events, every AI advance from Jeopardy-winning IBM machines to the massive AI language model GPT-3 is taking humanity one step closer to an existential threat. We're literally building our soon-to-be-sentient successors.

Read more
The best hurricane trackers for Android and iOS in 2022
Truck caught in gale force winds.

Hurricane season strikes fear into the hearts of those who live in its direct path, as well as distanced loved ones who worry for their safety. If you've ever sat up all night in a state of panic for a family member caught home alone in the middle of a destructive storm, dependent only on intermittent live TV reports for updates, a hurricane tracker app is a must-have tool. There are plenty of hurricane trackers that can help you prepare for these perilous events, monitor their progress while underway, and assist in recovery. We've gathered the best apps for following storms, predicting storm paths, and delivering on-the-ground advice for shelter and emergency services. Most are free to download and are ad-supported. Premium versions remove ads and add additional features.

You may lose power during a storm, so consider purchasing a portable power source,  just in case. We have a few handy suggestions for some of the best portable generators and power stations available. 

Read more
Don’t buy the Meta Quest Pro for gaming. It’s a metaverse headset first
Meta Quest Pro enables 3D modeling in mixed reality.

Last week’s Meta Connect started off promising on the gaming front. Viewers got release dates for Iron Man VR, an upcoming Quest game that was previously a PS VR exclusive, as well as Among Us VR. Meta, which owns Facebook, also announced that it was acquiring three major VR game studios -- Armature Studio, Camouflaj Team, and Twisted Pixel -- although we don’t know what they’re working on just yet.

Unfortunately, that’s where the Meta Connect's gaming section mostly ended. Besides tiny glimpses and a look into fitness, video games were not the show's focus. Instead, CEO Mark Zuckerberg wanted to focus on what seemed to be his company’s real vision of VR's future, which involves a lot of legs and a lot of work with the Quest Pro, a mixed reality headset that'll cost a whopping $1,500.

Read more