Debate Magazine

Outsourcing and Automation

By Stevemiranda

From New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s recent column:

Computers, it turns out, can quickly analyze millions of documents, cheaply performing a task that used to require armies of lawyers and paralegals. In this case, then, technological progress is actually reducing the demand for highly educated workers.

And legal research isn’t an isolated example. As the article points out, software has also been replacing engineers in such tasks as chip design. More broadly, the idea that modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners, may dominate popular discussion, but it’s actually decades out of date.

Some years ago, the economists David Autor, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane argued computers excel at routine tasks, “cognitive and manual tasks that can be accomplished by following explicit rules.” Therefore, any routine task — a category that includes many white-collar, non-manual jobs — is in the firing line.

That means that simply being able to follow directions—a useful skill in a 20th century economy—is no longer a ticket to job security. Creativity can’t be outsourced and it can’t be automated, which makes it a valuable asset in a 21st century economy.

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