In recent years, there has been a lively debate on the impact of robots on employment. With few exceptions, it has had a predominantly negative tone. But recent JRC studies show that things are quite different. Blaming robots for recent troubles in the EU labour market shifts public attention away from other, more prominent causes such as labour market deregulation, the weakening of collective bargaining structures or a general lack of public spending.
In a new paper, researchers from the JRC challenge the idea that robots are currently having a significant impact on employment in advanced economies. They show that the industrial robots currently being used are essentially more sophisticated versions of previous existing automation technologies. The distribution of these robots is extremely concentrated in a few economic activities and countries, and their installation is mostly aimed at the automation of routine processes in scale intensive manufacturing industries. Thetypes of labour input that these robots can replace are already quite marginal in European labour markets. Thus, the potential employment effects of industrial robots are a priori limited.
These findings complement other recent research carried out at the JRC on the effect of industrial robots on employment across sectorsand regions, on job quality and on productivity. All these studies conclude that fears of a looming employment crisis provoked by robots are unjustified given the existing evidence. Robots are used intensively in some European manufacturing sectors (mostly, automobile, rubber and plastic, and metal industries). Robots have contributed significantly to productivity growth and economic development. Their impact on employment, however, has been marginal in the last two and a half decades and is likely to remain so at least in the short and medium term.
As discussed in a recent column in Social Europe these findings have important implications for policy. Robots – or in a broader sense, automation – are often blamed for recent troubling developments in European labour markets, such as rising wage inequality or the polarisation of employment opportunities. This shifts public attention away from other, more prominent causes such as labour market deregulation, the weakening of collective bargaining structures or a general lack of public spending. The relentless focus on automation in recent debates on the future of work may have also contributed to unjustified feelings of economic anxiety and fatalism, potentially damaging the political debate.
Further information: more details on the JRC research programme on the changing nature of work and skills, the JRC Labour, Education and Technology Working Papers Series.
- 23 Juni 2021