April 17, 2020

Credit: Witthaya Prasongsin / Getty Images

Everybody, in one way or another, is being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. From our health to our social lives, so much has changed so quickly. However, the crisis is hitting some Americans harder than others. Estimates are that America's unemployment rate is currently in the teens (and potentially headed higher), and there has been a record number of unemployment benefit claims during the past month. According to David Autor, Ford Professor of Economics at MIT and co-chair of the MIT Work of the Future Task Force, what’s happening will be “transformative” for the country’s economy in the long run —  both positively and negatively.

Main Takeaways:

  • Millions of Americans are out of a job right now, and that’s going to have a massive, immediate impact on the economy and people’s lives. To begin addressing this, the new CARES Act is supplying stimulus checks and expanding unemployment insurance benefits to workers who were not previously eligible to apply, such as gig workers. However, the software and systems that are managing these payouts are decades old and aren’t coping well with the huge demand.
  • The effects of this pandemic will be far reaching and, according to Autor, the way that we conduct business and think about work may permanently change. For instance, now that companies have experimented more with remote working practices, we may see a drop in business travel in the coming years. Universities may also have greater capacity - and willingness - to conduct classes online in the future.
  • Businesses themselves could be forever changed by the pandemic. Autor calls the economic downturn an “automation forcing event,” during which executives embrace - or have already embraced - non-human labor to replace everything from waitstaff to janitors. Autor also foresees the demand for in-person services dropping and ecommerce only continuing to grow.

More Reading:

  • The Cobol system that the unemployment benefits are processed through is old. So old, in fact, that computer scientist Grace Hopper herself helped develop it
  • According to this article from Brookings, automation in the workplace doesn’t happen in a linear fashion. Instead, it occurs in bursts, mainly concentrated during economic downturns  —  like right now.
  • While neither the recession nor the virus discriminate when it comes to who is hurt, there is a history of a wealth divide when it comes to pandemics. 

David Autor, covid19, economics, unemployment

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