The way this model plays out stacks up with other economists’ findings about the downsides of technology. “Tech progress can make the pie bigger yet still make a lot of people worse off. It’s the big paradox of our era,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, who heads MIT’s Center for Digital Business. Although he says he wouldn’t necessarily start with the assumption that young people are unskilled, he believes the paper is raising the right issues. In the center’s work, “we show some broadly similar things that technology can make people worse off,” Brynjolfsson says.
The muddier question is who those people are—and whether, as Sachs and Kotlikoff suggest, younger people are among the groups being harmed. “There is much to the Sachs and Kotlikoff paper, but I don’t view it mainly as an old vs. young effect,” says economist Tyler Cowen. It may not make sense to assume that young people are the unskilled ones: “The key question is who works well with computers and who is competing with computers,” Cowen says. Often, he points out, technological change favors the young—just look at Mark Zuckerberg—so it’s perhaps too simple to group young people as one unskilled mass.
Of course, Zuckerbergs are not the norm. “There are a lot of young people to whom this model actually applies. Probably more than half of young people,” drawn, for instance, from the two-thirds of 25- to 29-year-olds without bachelor degrees, says Sachs. “If our labor force was all young computer programmers, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion, period.”
Sachs and Kotlikoff are economists, not revolutionaries; they aren’t Luddite enough to want to smash the machines. Instead, they suggest a mechanism for making sure benefits are more evenly shared—in this case, a redistributive tax. Other economists think that it’s still possible to get people the right education to do the jobs robots can’t.
It’s going to be a tough slog identifying those truly irreplaceable human roles, though. “I don’t know if we’re ever going to fall in love with machines,” Kotlikoff offers. But even that’s already happening: In 2009, a Japanese man married his virtual girlfriend.
Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian’s SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.