Robots coming for our jobs, Sasse warns Iowans

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Sen. Ben Sasse wants to talk about the robots coming to take our jobs.

The Nebraska Republican delivered a speech this month in Iowa to the Family Leader activist group. It would have been a prime opportunity for the rising GOP star to talk about his nuclear family or his anti-abortion credentials in front of our state’s most conservative crowd. Instead, he warned Iowans about the impending labor revolution.

“We’re entering a world where there’s going to be a lot less work. … We’re entering a world of perpetual churn and change, and new job formation over and over and over again in the course of our lives,” Sasse said during his latest visit to Iowa.

The buzz about automation is fueled by emerging technologies that promise to eliminate or drastically alter most human jobs. Drones and self-service retail kiosks are already working, and we’re seeing impressive progress on driverless cars, blockchain security systems, and humanoid robots.

Politicians like Sasse are starting to wonder what will happen to American workers if computers and robots significantly reduce the number of jobs available to humans.

Iowans have already been watching employment automation up close for more than 100 years.

During the last century, 22 million work animals on U.S. farms were slowly replaced with more than 5 million tractors, according to a 2005 Department of Agriculture report. The number of farms dropped, while the average farm size grew. As a result, the portion of American workers employed in agriculture dropped from 41 percent to 2 percent between 1900 and 2000.

Of course, farm families didn’t just shrivel up. Many moved to town and got new jobs, others stayed in the country and supplemented their farm income with other work.

However, some analysts predict we’re facing an even bigger shift this century. One report by Ball State University researchers this year found more than half of our jobs across Iowa at risk of automation. That ranges from about 50 percent in Dallas County, to more than 60 percent in Lee County.

The major worry is the upsides and downsides of automation may not be equally distributed across the economy.

“These changes do not suggest trade, urbanization or workplace automation fail to yield benefits, but rather suggest that these economic and technological phenomena have very stark distributional effects. Thus, some places and people observe robust benefits, while others observe primarily costs,” the Ball State researchers wrote.

Automation in manufacturing and agriculture may be most tangible, but no industry has been left untouched.

Since I started working in journalism about 10 years ago, the number of newspaper jobs has dropped nearly by half, according to federal labor statistics. Meanwhile the number of jobs in online publishing has more than doubled.

For now, the automation debate is waged mostly among academics and commentators, though Sasse says it won’t be long until the political class comes to muck it up.

“There is no politician who is going to save America, friends,” Sasse said.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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