Aging population major driver in speed of automation

The speed of the integration of autonomous processes into an economy is driven by the age of the workforce a new study had concluded.

Researchers from MIT found that robots are more widely adopted where populations become notably older, filling the gaps in an aging industrial work force.

“Demographic change — aging — is one of the most important factors leading to the adoption of robotics and other automation technologies,” says Daron Acemoglu, an MIT economist and co-author of a new paper detailing the results of the study.

The study found that when it comes to the adoption of robots, aging alone accounts for 35 percent of the variation among countries. Within the U.S., the research showed the same pattern: Metro areas where the population is getting older at a faster rate are the places where industry invests more in robots.

“We provide a lot of evidence to bolster the case that this is a causal relationship, and it is driven by precisely the industries that are most affected by aging and have opportunities for automating work,” Acemoglu added.

The paper, “Demographics and Automation,” has been authored by Acemoglu, an Institute Professor at MIT, and Pascual Restrepo PhD ’16, an assistant professor of economics at Boston University.

The study is the latest in a series of papers Acemoglu and Restrepo have published about automation, robots, and the workforce. They have previously quantified job displacement in the U.S. due to robots, looked at the firm-level effects of robot use, and identified the late 1980s as a key moment when automation started replacing more jobs than it was creating.

This study involved multiple layers of demographic, technological, and industry-level data, from the early 1990s through the mid-2010s. First, Acemoglu and Restrepo found a strong relationship between an aging work force — defined by the ratio of workers 56 and older to those ages 21 to 55 — and robot deployment in 60 countries. Aging alone accounted for not only 35 percent of the variation in robot use among countries, but also 20 percent of the variation in imports of robots, the researchers found.

Some countries stand out. South Korea has been the country both aging most rapidly and implementing robotics most extensively. And Germany’s relatively older population accounts for 80 percent of the difference in robot implementation between that country and the U.S.

Overall, Acemoglu added: “Our findings suggest that quite a bit of investment in robotics is not driven by the fact that this is the next ‘amazing frontier,’ but because some countries have shortages of labour, especially middle-aged labour that would be necessary for blue-collar work.”

Digging into a wide variety of industry-level data across 129 countries, Acemoglu and Restrepo concluded that what holds for robots also applies to other, nonrobotic types of automation.

“We find the same thing when we look at other automation technologies, such as numerically controlled machinery or automated machine tools,” Acemoglu explained. “We do not find similar relationships when we look at nonautomated machinery, for example nonautomated machine tools or things such as computers.”

The research examined larger-scale trends. In recent decades, workers have fared better economically in Germany than in the U.S. The current research suggests there is a difference between adopting automation in response to labour shortages, as opposed to adopting automation as a cost-cutting, worker-replacing strategy. In Germany, robots have entered the workplace more to compensate for the absence of workers; in the U.S., relatively more robot adoption has displaced a slightly younger workforce.

“This is a potential explanation for why South Korea, Japan, and Germany — the leaders in robot investment and the most rapidly aging countries in the world — have not seen labour market outcomes [as bad] as those in the U.S.,” Acemoglu concluded.

The study found that when it comes to the adoption of robots, aging alone accounts for 35 percent of the variation among countries. Within the U.S., the research showed the same pattern: Metro areas where the population is getting older at a faster rate are the places where industry invests more in robots.

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