The U.S. labor market looks markedly different today than it did two decades ago. It has been reshaped by dramatic events like the Great Recession but also by a quieter ongoing evolution in the mix and location of jobs. In the decade ahead, the next wave of technology may accelerate the pace of change. Millions of jobs could be phased out even as new ones are created. More broadly, the day-to-day nature of work could change for nearly everyone as intelligent machines become fixtures in the American workplace.
Until recently, most research on the potential effects of automation, including our own body of work, has focused on the national-level effects. Our previous work ran multiple scenarios regarding the pace and extent of adoption. In the midpoint case, our modeling shows some jobs being phased out but sufficient numbers being added at the same time to produce net positive job growth for the United States as a whole through 2030.1 But the national results contain a wide spectrum of outcomes, and this report goes one step further to explore those variations. Automation is not happening in a vacuum, and the health of local economies today will affect their ability to adapt and thrive in the face of the changes that lie ahead.
Our analysis of more than 3,000 US counties and 315 cities finds they are on sharply different paths. Twenty-five megacities and high-growth hubs, plus their peripheries, have generated the majority of job growth since the Great Recession. By contrast, 54 trailing cities and roughly 2,000 rural counties that are home to one-quarter of the US population have older and shrinking workforces, higher unemployment, and lower educational attainment. Automation technologies may widen these disparities at a time when workforce mobility is at historic lows.
The labor market could become even more polarized. Workers with a high school degree or less are four times as likely as those with a bachelor’s degree to be displaced by automation. Reflecting more limited access to education, Hispanic workers are most at risk of displacement, followed by African Americans. Jobs held by nearly 15 million workers ages 18–34 may be automated, so young people will need new career paths to gain an initial foothold in the working world. Roughly 11.5 million workers over age 50 could also be displaced and face the challenge of making late-career moves. The hollowing out of middlewage work could continue.