Automation linked to rising death rate among US working-age adults

According to a new study by researchers from Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, the automation of manufacturing in the United States – robots replacing people in factories – is fueling the rise in the death rate among American adults in working age.

The study, published Feb. 23 in the journal Demography, found evidence of a causal link between automation and increased mortality, primarily due to increased “desperation deaths,” as suicides and drug overdoses. This is especially true for men and women between the ages of 45 and 54, according to the study. But the researchers also found evidence of increased mortality across multiple age and sex groups from causes as varied as cancer and heart disease.

Public policies, including strong social safety net programs, higher minimum wages, and limiting the supply of prescription opioids, can mitigate the effects of automation on a community’s health, have concluded the researchers.

“For decades, manufacturers in the United States have turned to automation to stay competitive in the global marketplace, but this technological innovation has reduced the number of quality jobs available to adults without college degrees – a group that has faced increased mortality in recent years,” said lead author Rourke O’Brien, assistant professor of sociology at Yale School of Arts and Science. “Our analysis shows that automation weighs on the health of individuals both directly – by reducing employment, wages and access to healthcare – and indirectly, by reducing the economic vitality of the wider community. .”

Since 1980, death rates in the United States have diverged from those in other high-income countries. Today, Americans die an average of three years earlier than their counterparts in other rich countries.

Automation is a major source of declining manufacturing jobs in the United States, along with other factors including competition with manufacturers in countries with lower labor costs, such as the China and Mexico. Previous research has shown that the adoption of industrial robots resulted in the loss of approximately 420,000 to 750,000 jobs during the 1990s and 2000s, the majority of which were in manufacturing.

To understand the role of automation on increased mortality, O’Brien and co-authors Elizabeth F. Blair and Atheendar Venkataramani, both of the University of Pennsylvania, used newly available measures that trace the adoption of automation in U.S. industries and localities between 1993 and 2007. They combined these measures with U.S. death certificate data from the same period to estimate the causal effect of automation on adult mortality of working age at the county level and for specific types of deaths.

According to the study, each new robot per 1,000 workers resulted in about eight additional deaths per 100,000 men aged 45 to 54 and almost four additional deaths per 100,000 women in the same age group. The analysis showed that automation led to a substantial increase in suicides among middle-aged men and drug overdose deaths among men of all ages and women between the ages of 20 and 29. Overall, automation could be linked to 12% of the increase in drug overdose mortality among all working-age adults during the study period. The researchers also found evidence linking the lost jobs and reduced wages caused by automation to increased homicides, cancers, and cardiovascular disease among specific age and gender groups.

The researchers looked at policy areas that could mitigate the adverse effects of automation. They found that strong social safety net programs, such as Medicaid and unemployment benefits, at the state level, mitigated the effects of automation among middle-aged men, particularly suicide deaths. and drug overdose. Labor market policies also mediate the effects of automation on middle-aged men: the effects of automation were more pronounced in states with “right to work” laws, which contribute to lower rates. lower unionization rates, and in states with lower minimum wages, according to the study.

The study found evidence to suggest that the effect of automation on drug overdose deaths may be greater in regions with higher per capita supply of prescription opioids.

“Our findings underscore the importance of public policies to support individuals and communities who have lost their jobs or seen their wages drop due to automation,” said Venkatarmani, co-author of the study. “A strong social safety net and labor market policies that improve the quality of jobs available to workers without a college degree can help reduce deaths from despair and strengthen the overall health of communities, especially those of the heart. industrialist of our country.

The study authors are members of Opportunity for Health, a research group that explores how economic opportunity affects the health of individuals and communities. The study was funded by the US Social Security Administration.

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