An increase in “deaths of despair” – suicide and overdose – across the US has been linked to robot manufacturing which is gradually replacing people in their jobs
Americans on average die three years sooner than their counterparts in other wealthy nations. This can be brought on by many factors, but researchers find that automation is a major source of the decline of US manufacturing jobs leading to this.
The increase in automation of manufacturing across the world, leading to robots replacing people on factory floors, has resulted in a sharp increase in mortality rates in working-age adults – particularly in the US.
Former research demonstrates that implementing industrial robots caused the loss of an estimated 420,000 to 750,000 jobs during the 1990s and 2000s, the majority of which were in manufacturing.
According to a new study by researchers at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, there is a causal link between automation and increasing mortality, influenced by rising “deaths of despair” – involving suicide and overdoses.
This mental health issue, fuelled by job loss and replacement, particularly affects males and females aged 45 to 54, with evidence of increased mortality across multiple age and sex groups from causes including cancer and heart disease.
Economic opportunity affects the health of individuals and communities
The study, published in the journal Demography, analyses on the risk factors which affect an individual’s likelihood to commit suicide, focusing on the community’s health in light of increasing automation in jobs.
The researchers state that public policy, including strong social-safety net programs, higher minimum wages, and limiting the supply of prescription opioids, can lessen the effect that automation’s increase can have on a community’s health.
Reasons for automation increase – which gradually leads to this mental health decrease – can include competition with manufacturers in countries with lower costs of labour, as seen in countries such as China and Mexico.
Lead author Rourke O’Brien, assistant professor of sociology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said: “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.
“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.”
Better access to healthcare, including mental healthcare, could help
To understand the role of automation on increased mortality, the researchers used measures to chart the implementation of automation across industries and localities between 1993 and 2007 in the US, combined with death-certificate data during the same period to calculate the causal effect of automation on the mortality of working age adults at the county level and for specific types of deaths.
From this they found that each new robot per 1,000 workers led to about eight additional deaths per 100,000 males aged 45 to 54 and nearly four additional deaths per 100,000 females in the same age group.
Automation caused a substantial increase in suicides among middle-aged men and drug overdose deaths among men of all ages and women aged 20 to 29 – and during the study period – could be linked to 12% of the increase in drug overdose mortality among all working-age adults.
Overall, the lost jobs and reduced wages caused by automation caused increased homicide, cancer, and cardiovascular disease within specific age-sex groups.
The importance of safety net programmes and better wages
Policies which could lessen this harmful effect of automation included robust social safety net programs – such as Medicaid and unemployment benefits – which generally weakened the effects of automation among middle-aged males, particularly suicide and overdose deaths.
Additionally, labour market policies also lessen automation’s effects on middle-aged men.
The effects of automation were more pronounced in states with “right to work” laws, which contribute to lower rates of unionization, and states with lower minimum wages. Drug overdose deaths were also higher in areas with higher per capita supplies of prescription opioids.
Venkatarmani, co-author of the study, said: “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.
“A strong social safety net and labor market policies that improve the quality of jobs available to workers without a college degree may help reduce deaths of despair and strengthen the general health of communities, particularly those in our nation’s industrial heartland.”