Automation and Jobs: When Technology Boosts Employment

47 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2017 Last revised: 28 Mar 2018

See all articles by James E. Bessen

James E. Bessen

Technology & Policy Research Initiative, BU School of Law

Date Written: March 23, 2018


Do industries shed jobs when they adopt new labor-saving technologies? Sometimes productivity-enhancing technology increases industry employment instead. In manufacturing, jobs grew along with productivity for a century or more; only later did productivity gains bring declining employment. What changed? Markets became saturated. While the literature on structural change provides reasons for the decline in the manufacturing share of employment, few papers can explain both the rise and subsequent fall. Using two centuries of data, a simple model of demand accurately explains the rise and fall of employment in the US textile, steel, and automotive industries. The model helps explain why the Industrial Revolution was highly disruptive despite low productivity growth and why information technologies appear to have positive effects on employment today.

Keywords: Automation, technical change, sectoral growth, labor demand, manufacturing, computer technology, deindustrialization

JEL Classification: J2, O3, N10

Suggested Citation

Bessen, James E., Automation and Jobs: When Technology Boosts Employment (March 23, 2018). Boston Univ. School of Law, Law and Economics Research Paper No. 17-09. Available at SSRN: or

James E. Bessen (Contact Author)

Technology & Policy Research Initiative, BU School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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