• Melinda Mills

Is automation good or bad news for social mobility?

What happens to families when industrial jobs are lost to automation? This asks a recent study by LCDS Research Fellow Per Engzell and coauthor Thor Berger. Deindustrialization has been bad for workers in former industrial heartlands. But if children go on to jobs in more productive sectors, could automation be good for social mobility?

In the study, the researchers looked at US labor markets that were differently exposed to industrial robots. They used data on the incomes of parents and children to understand how the incomes of children today compare to the incomes of their parents, before robots affected local industries.

The findings do not support the idea of technological change as a driver of social mobility in today’s US. In fact, the destruction of jobs led to a greater persistence of poverty in the places where jobs had been more exposed to replacement by robots. These findings were especially marked among boys, while girls were more resilient.

Dr. Engzell commented, “Sociologists used to think that industrial change inexorably led to social mobility. We show that that’s not true. Instead, it needs to be coupled with robust social support and access to education.”

He added that women’s greater participation in education might help explain why they often fare better in today’s knowledge-driven economy.

The full reference for the study, published in Social Science Research, is as follows:

Berger, Thor and Per Engzell. 2022. “Industrial automation and intergenerational income mobility in the United States.” Social Science Research, Volume 104, May 2022, 102686.