What the automation of telephone operators can tell us about future jobs

In the 1920s, AT&T employed hundreds of thousands of people as phone operators. The automation of these jobs affected incumbents and new entrants in different ways.

November 19, 2020

The fear that “automation will take our jobs” goes back centuries. When Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press in the mid-1400s, a whole class of scribes was put out of work.

During the pandemic, the rapid transition to digital everything has exacerbated these fears.

Against this backdrop, an interesting new research paper from James Feigenbaum and Daniel P. Gross looks at “Automation and the Fate of Young Workers.”

Going back to phone operator times

Per Gross, one of the biggest labor shocks of the 20th century was the automation of telephone operators, a common entry-level role for young women in the 1920s.

At the time, AT&T was the country’s largest employer and had hundreds of thousands of operators on its payroll. Over the next 50 years, it replaced humans with mechanical dials and switches.

By the 1960s, these dials handled more than 60% of AT&T’s network.

What happened to the labor market?

The research found divergent results for two cohorts of labor:

  • Existing operators that were automated away were “less likely to be working in the next decade.”
  • New entrants to the labor market were able to find stepping-stone roles in jobs with similar requirements (typists, secretaries).

Of course, 2020 is a much different situation than 1920. But this is an interesting reminder that labor markets have historically had the capacity to adjust to massive shocks.

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