Robots are the great bogeymen of the 21st century. With their superhuman strength and non-stop work ethic, many feel they are gunning for our jobs. But these fears may be overblown. The first comprehensive look at automation on the German economy suggests that robots created more jobs than they destroyed.
People’s fears have been stoked by headlines warning of the robot takeover. A 2013 study by the University of Oxford, for example, suggested robots are set to replace as much as 47 per cent of the US workforce and 35 per cent of the UK’s.
But far from this apocalyptic scenario, automation resulted in an overall increase in jobs of between 1.5 and 1.8 per cent in Germany between 2011 and 2016. While robots claimed 5 per cent of jobs, more new ones were created. What’s more, most of these tended to pay better than those that had gone before.
An industrial robot may replace 100 workers, but there are knock-on effects that can add jobs elsewhere. “Now the company can produce the same goods, but more cheaply. Demand goes up and they need to hire more people to fill the new demand,” says Melanie Arntz at the Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim, Germany. The same effect should be seen in other countries, including the UK and US, she says.
Previous studies also overestimated the rqelationship between jobs that can be automated and those that will, says Arntz. To come to this conclusion, Arntz and her colleagues surveyed 2000 senior managers at companies representing a broad swathe of the German economy. The researchers asked the managers to rate the level of automation at their companies in each year between 2011 and 2016. They then used data from the German Federal Employment Agency on around 300,000 workers to get the overall picture.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Robots aren’t coming for your job after all”. (Sally Adee, New Scientist 14 April 2018)