Humans versus Machines: An Overview of Research on the Effects of Automation of Work

Digital automation has pervaded many areas of our daily activities, with serious repercussions for social, economic and political systems. Automation’s ever-enhancing capability to transform human lives has spawned a wide body of scholarly research, with inputs from social and economic sciences, engineering and technology. In this paper, Didem Özkiziltan and Anke Hassel provide a brief overview of the main arguments put forward, particularly in labour economics, on the subject of digital automation, with a special focus on Germany. Such debates revolve around the impact of automation on the number of jobs performed by human labour and the restructuring of labour markets under the influence of automation. The overview starts with a short discussion about the meaning of digital automation. It then outlines the debates of how technology distributes work between humans and machines from the viewpoint of skill-biased technological change and routine-biased technological change research. This is followed by a summary of the way digital technologies have been restructuring the world of work.

The overview concludes by pointing out research gaps that are particularly relevant in the German context. It emphasises that a new research agenda should incorporate the role of existing education and training regimes (VET), in particular in light of employment polarisation and the shrinking employment segment of jobs with mid-level pay and skills. Moreover, there is a lack of research that considers the insights of industrial sociology with regard to the renegotiation of work organisation in the process of automation. In particular, the role of institutional factors, such as workers’ representatives, in the form of trade unions or works councils, has largely been neglected by studies on labour economics. Finally, there should be more attention paid to the differentiated effects of automation on specific socio-economic groups, such as women and men, but also between different generations.

Didem Özkiziltan and Anke Hassel (2021). Humans versus Machines: An Overview of Research on the Effects of Automation of Work, Social Science Research Network. 

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