Automation and the fate of young workers

· November 28, 2020

Anyone interested in the impact of automation should check out this paper on the NBER “Automation and the Fate of Young Workers: Evidence from Telephone Operation in the Early 20th Century”.

The authors, James Feigenbaum & Daniel P. Gross, take a detailed look at the results of telephone exchanges moving from manually operated to mechanical on the young women that operated them. They use some clever techniques to track the outcomes in what was always a high-churn industry. From the abstract:

We show that although automation eliminated most of these jobs, it did not affect future cohorts’ overall employment: the decline in demand for operators was counteracted by growth in both middle-skill jobs like secretarial work and lower-skill service jobs, which absorbed future generations. Using a new genealogy-based census linking method, we show that incumbent telephone operators were most impacted by automation, and a decade later were more likely to be in lower-paying occupations or have left the labor force entirely.