How Did Computerization Since the 1980s Affect Older Workers?

Publication Date: December 2019

Publisher: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College

Author(s): Anek Belbase; Anqi Chen

Research Area:

Keywords: Financing Retirement

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


Laborsaving machines, from the cotton gin to automotive robots, have dramatically reduced the amount
of human effort needed to produce goods and services. And despite anxiety about machine-driven mass
unemployment, workers replaced by machines have
not remained idle over the long term. Instead, they
have found jobs in growing industries by learning to
perform new tasks. But these transitions have not
always been easy, especially for older workers – who
have considerable knowledge tied to their current job
and a shorter period over which to benefit from new
skills. As machines rapidly take on new tasks, from
serving coffee to diagnosing cancer, will older workers continue to find jobs that make use of their skills?
For the many people who need to work into their late
60s to afford to retire, the stakes are high.
This brief is the second in a three-part series on
how increasingly capable machines might affect job
prospects for older workers in the near future. The
first brief reviewed the impact of different types of
laborsaving machines over the past two centuries.
Since computers are the machines that continue to
define our times, this brief reviews their impact on
older workers starting in the 1980s.
The discussion proceeds as follows. The first
section explains how machines can create short-term
winners or losers depending on the tasks that the
machines take on. The second section describes how
computers took on “routine” tasks, which affected
workers differently by their education level. The
third section analyzes whether these effects extended
to workers ages 55-64, and concludes that they did.
Across age groups, computers have largely benefited
workers with a college degree and computer skills,
but made it harder for workers with less education to
find good jobs. A shrinking gap between the education level and computer knowledge of young and old
workers helps explain their similar outcomes. The
final section looks ahead to the next brief, which addresses whether the current pattern will continue as
computers become more sophisticated.