The Answer to the A.I. Jobs Apocalypse Is All About Geography
The spread of intelligence machines will worsen geographic inequality, unless we take proactive measures
Historically, the worst times for labor have been those characterized by both worker-replacing technological change and slow productivity growth. If A.I. technologies turn out to be as brilliant as some of us think, we can expect some workers to see their incomes vanish in the process — even as new jobs are created elsewhere in the economy. That is what has happened in recent years, and it is also what happened during the most tumultuous years of industrialization.
If current trends continue in the coming years, the divide between the automation winners and losers will become even wider. And there are good reasons to think that it will. Looking at the automatability of existing jobs, we have seen that most occupations that require a college degree remain hard to automate, while many unskilled jobs — like those of cashiers, food preparers, call center agents, and truck drivers — seem set to vanish, though how soon is highly uncertain. But there are also unskilled jobs that remain outside the realms of A.I. Many in-person service jobs that center on complex social interactions — like those of fitness trainers, hairstylists, concierges, and massage therapists — will remain safe from automation.
Computers have created jobs for software engineers and programmers, which in turn have raised the demand for in-person service jobs in the places where they work and live. Thus, where skilled jobs are abundant, the unskilled earn better wages, too. In San Jose, California, fitness trainers and aerobics instructors made $57,230 on average in 2017. In Flint, Michigan, they averaged $35,550 annually. Of course, direct comparisons are complicated by a variety of factors. It is true that the cost of living in the Bay Area is higher than it is in Flint. But it is just as true that amenities are more plentiful, health outcomes and public services are better, and crime rates are lower.
Removing barriers to the expansion and development of skilled cities would help social mobility.