How Will Emerging Computers Affect Older Workers by 2040?

Publication Date: January 2020

Publisher: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College

Author(s): Anek Belbase; Andrew Eschtruth

Research Area: Labor; Population and demographics

Keywords: Financing Retirement

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


Technological change is not new, particularly to the United States. Founded during the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the country has been a leader in new technologies – from the cotton gin and the lightbulb to the personal computer and the internet. These advances have enabled people to lead lifestyles today that would have been unimaginable a century ago. But progress has not been painless for workers, as each wave of innovation has created laborsaving machines that have disrupted jobs. Each time, workers replaced by machines have faced difficult short-term transitions, but, through retraining and career changes, have eventually found jobs in rising industries.

Today, as computer-powered machines perform tasks that would have seemed impossible only a decade ago, policymakers and workers alike are beginning to wonder – will workers continue to be able to adapt or is this time fundamentally different? The effect of new machines on older workers is of particular concern, because older workers make up a growing share of the workforce and increasingly need to work until their late 60s to attain a secure retirement. This brief wraps up a three-part series on the effects of laborsaving machines on older workers. The first brief reviewed the impact of machines over the past two centuries, and the second brief examined how the recent rise of computers has affected older workers so far. The current brief turns to the near future and explores how emerging computers, with expanding capabilities that rely on artificial intelligence, might affect the job prospects of older workers over the next two decades.

The brief proceeds as follows. The first section describes the unique features of emerging computer technology. The second section explains how the new computers might affect demand for workers based on occupation and education. The third section examines whether older workers might be uniquely affected. The final section concludes that age is unlikely to determine how workers will be impacted. Instead, workers’ education levels – which are now roughly similar by age group – and social skills – which tend to get better with age – will play important roles in how they fare.