Black and Hispanic Workers Face Unemployment in the 'Age of Automation'

Technological advancements have accelerated human progress for centuries by making day-to-day life safer and more convenient. Improvements in technology are nearly exclusively considered to be positive, and the leaps and bounds in medical science are celebrated and showcased around the world. However, as technological advances are made, the workforce must adapt just as quickly. Previous technological upheavals have induced ripple effects that proved disastrous for certain sectors of the labor force.

In early 2019, Forbes Magazine asserted that we have entered the “Age of Automation.” While this new age will surely benefit a segment of the workforce by allowing business owners to reduce production and labor costs, millions of Americans could lose their jobs to robots. The McKinsey Institute projects that by 2030, between 73 million jobs in the US would be at risk for automation. Manual labor and skilled trade jobs are most vulnerable to the threat of automation.

Black and Hispanic Americans are most likely to feel the impact of automation. They are at the greatest risk for job loss, and will bear the brunt of the job displacement to come.

Technology's long-running trend of replacing human labor has traditionally been a welcome step toward a more prosperous and advanced society. When technology as commonplace as washing machines, and later, dishwashers first entered family homes on a large scale after World War II, Americans were able to spend less time tending to household chores and more time engaging in leisure activities. Although the perks of technological advancements have been enjoyed globally, people from countries around the world have also experienced the sometimes unprecedented consequences these advancements may produce.

Technological unemployment, job displacement as a result of technological advancement, has impacted workers and their families for hundreds of years. During the earliest phases of the Industrial Revolution, millions of people found themselves unemployed as the economy shifted away from an agrarian focus. Rural populations waned as those who once made a living working on farms moved to urban areas in search of factory work. Economic difficulties were compounded by the absence of labor laws that protect American workers today. Factory owners were able to offer employees extremely low wages, as unemployment rates skyrocketed, and paying jobs became increasingly sought-after.

Today, Americans face another technological revolution. This time, businesses across the country are cutting jobs, and replacing human labor with robots. Businesses across the country are cutting jobs, and replacing human labor with robots. In 2017 alone, Amazon added 75,000 robots to replace human workers in warehouses around the nation. Walmart also obtained robots earlier this year to complete the tasks humans don’t “enjoy doing,” like cleaning and stocking.

The looming threat of job loss due to automation and artificial intelligence comes on a massive scale — especially for Americans of color.

Forty-seven percent of jobs held by Hispanics and forty-four percent of those held by Black people are susceptible to complete automation in the coming decades.

In comparison, an estimated 40 percent of the jobs held by white workers are susceptible to automation in the next two decades. These racial disparities can be attributed to the fact that men and minorities are over represented in jobs requiring manual labor.

In contrast, the transition to a more automated world will likely be easiest for those with college degrees. Professions requiring a high level of education are less susceptible for automation. For example, about 91 percent of food service jobs are at risk for automation in the coming decades, compared to just 8 percent of jobs related to software development. These projections may be encouraging for those at the top of America’s biggest businesses, who will likely reap large financial benefits from leveraging labor from robots against their human counterparts who require wages, health insurance, sick days, and are less efficient workers. However, a glance at our nation’s prior run in with the widespread technological unemployment spurred on by the Industrial Revolution provides insight to how devastating job displacement can be for working class people.

Fortunately, waves of technological advancement and subsequent job loss are usually followed by a revitalization of the workforce, brought on by the emergence of brand new jobs that sustain the newest technological age. Although the early stages of the Industrial Revolution were marked by job displacement and unemployment, the era was eventually transformed into an “age of opportunity,” as the availability of urban jobs and skilled labor increased. Likewise, the key to successfully adapting to the age of automation lies in preparing the youngest and most vulnerable members of the workforce for the new jobs that the upcoming age will inevitably create.

In 2018, Getting Smart published an article highlighting the importance of preparing today’s youth for tomorrow's world. Communities should facilitate conversations with students about how they can succeed in our ever-changing world, and schools should ensure that students graduate with the soft and technological skills necessary to contribute to society in a relevant and innovative way.

About the Author

Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.