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Robots blamed for rising death rates among US workers

28 February, 2022

The automation of US manufacturing – with robots replacing people on factory floors – is fuelling a rise in mortality rates among America’s working-age adults, according to a new study by researchers at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania.

The study, published in the journal Demography, found evidence of a causal link between automation and increasing mortality, driven largely by an increase in “deaths of despair,” such as suicides and drug overdoses. This is particularly true for males and females aged 45 to 54, according to the study. But the researchers also found evidence of increased mortality across multiple age and sex groups from causes as varied as cancer and heart disease.

“For decades, manufacturers in the United States have turned to automation to remain competitive in a global marketplace, but this technological innovation has reduced the number of quality jobs available to adults without a college degree – a group that has faced increased mortality in recent years,” says the study’s lead author, Rourke O’Brien, assistant professor of sociology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Our analysis shows that automation exacts a toll on the health of individuals both directly – by reducing employment, wages, and access to healthcare – as well as indirectly, by reducing the economic vitality of the broader community.”

Since 1980, mortality rates in the US have diverged from those in other high-income countries. Today, Americans die on average three years earlier than their counterparts in other wealthy nations.

Automation is a major source of the decline of US manufacturing jobs, along with other factors including competition with manufacturers in countries with lower labour costs, such as China and Mexico. Previous research has shown that adopting industrial robots resulted in the loss of an estimated 420,000–750,000 jobs during the 1990s and 2000s, most of which were in manufacturing.

To understand the role of automation on mortality, O’Brien and his co-authors, Elizabeth F. Blair and Atheendar Venkataramani, both of the University of Pennsylvania, used newly available measures that chart the adoption of automation across US industries and locations between 1993 and 2007. They combined these measures with US death-certificate data over the same time period to estimate the causal effect of automation on the mortality of working-age adults at the county level and for specific types of deaths.

They found that each new robot per 1,000 workers led to about eight additional deaths per 100,000 males aged 45–54 and nearly four additional deaths per 100,000 females in the same age group. The analysis showed that automation caused a substantial increase in suicides among middle-aged men and drug overdose deaths among men of all ages and women aged 20–29.

The study also linked automation to 12% of the increase in drug overdose mortality among working-age adults. The researchers also found evidence associating the loss in jobs and reduction in wages caused by automation with increased homicide, cancer and cardiovascular disease in specific age-sex groups.

Lead author Rourke O'Brien: automation exacts a toll on the health of individuals both directly and indirectly

The study found evidence suggesting that the effect of automation on drug overdose deaths might be higher in areas with higher per capita supplies of prescription opioids.

The researchers examined how public policies could mitigate automation’s harmful effects. They found that robust social safety net programmes, such as Medicaid and unemployment benefits, at the state level moderated the effects of automation among middle-aged males – particularly suicide and drug overdose deaths.

Another conclusion was that labour market policies can soften the effects of automation on middle-aged men. The researchers found that these effects were more pronounced in states that had “right to work” laws, which contribute to lower rates of unionisation, and in states with lower minimum wages.

Limiting the supply of prescription opioids, can also blunt automation’s effects on a community’s health, the researchers concluded.

“Our findings underscore the importance of public policy in supporting the individuals and communities who have lost their jobs or seen their wages cut due to automation,” says Venkatarmani. “A strong social safety net and labour market policies that improve the quality of jobs available to workers without a college degree may help to reduce deaths of despair and strengthen the general health of communities, particularly those in our nation’s industrial heartland.”

The study’s authors are members of Opportunity for Health, a research group that explores how economic opportunity affects the health of individuals and communities. The study was supported by the US Social Security Administration.

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