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What Should We Do After Work? Automation and Employment Law

56 Pages Posted: 29 Jul 2017 Last revised: 5 Jan 2018

Cynthia L. Estlund

New York University School of Law

Date Written: September 24, 2017


Will advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning put vast swaths of the labor force out of work or into fierce competition for the jobs that remain? Or, as in the past, will new jobs absorb workers displaced by automation? These hotly debated questions have profound implications for labor and employment law, and for the fortress of social entitlements that has been built on the foundation of the employment relationship. The question is how to proceed in the face of uncertainty about the future impact of automation on jobs.

First, it is important to recognize that many aspects of the law of work effectively “tax” the use of human labor; to the extent that the law adds to labor costs, it is a factor both in firms’ flight from direct employment and toward contracting out of labor needs, and in their substitution of machines for human workers. Unfortunately, the prevailing legal responses to fissuring – which aim to extend firms’ legal responsibility for the workers whose labor they rely on – do not meet the distinctive challenge of automation, and might modestly exacerbate it. Automation offers firms the ultimate exit from the costs, risks, and hassles associated with human labor. As technology becomes an ever more capable and cost-effective competitor to human workers, it may doom the prevailing legal strategy of shoring up the fortress of employment.

This Article proposes a general strategy for reducing the legal tax on employment, and for reducing firms’ incentive to replace employees with contractors and human workers with machines, while protecting the essential rights and entitlements of all of those who work for a living. The basic move is to separate the question of what workers’ entitlements should be from the question of where their economic burdens should fall. Some worker entitlements necessarily correspond to employer duties. But for those that do not, we should consider ways to extend the entitlements, their funding, or both. The aim is both to modestly slow the decline of “employment” and to enable those who cannot or do not choose to make their living through steady employment to meet their basic material needs.

Suggested Citation

Estlund, Cynthia L., What Should We Do After Work? Automation and Employment Law (September 24, 2017). NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 17-28; NYU Law and Economics Research Paper No. 17-26. Available at SSRN:

Cynthia L. Estlund (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

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United States
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