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Noah Smith

Most Workers Have Held Off the Machines So Far

But the worry is that upheaval will follow some huge technological shift.
Some jobs are better left to the humans.

Some jobs are better left to the humans.

Photographer: Fatemeh Bahrami/anadolu agency/getty images

One of the scariest questions in economics is whether human labor will someday be made obsolete by machines. Consultants and academics put out reports telling you how likely you are to lose your job to a robot. Economists argue back and forth about whether it’s possible for humanity to go the way of the horse. Technology industry leaders boldly talk about the need to implement a universal basic income once humans are no longer needed for work.

Have the machines already started putting humanity out of a job? It’s hard to tell, because lots of things muddy the data. Aging and increasing education levels decrease the amount of time the average person spends in the workforce. Gender norms change, pulling women into or out of the formal economy. Long recessions can reduce employment for years. But overall, in rich countries -- those most likely to implement the latest automation technologies -- human employment has held fairly steady for the last quarter-century: