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.

Get the 5-minute roundup you’ll actually read in your inbox

Business and tech news in 5 minutes or less

100% free. We don’t spam. Unsubscribe whenever.


How'd Bezos build a billion dollar empire?

In 1994, Jeff Bezos discovered a shocking stat: Internet usage grew 2,300% per year.

Data shows where markets are headed.

And that’s why we built Trends — to show you up-and-coming market opportunities about to explode. Interested?

We’re shooting our shot…

Start your mornings with The Daily.

Get the freshly baked 5-minute newsletter every day except Saturdays.

It’s filled with the most interesting stories on business, tech, and the internet.

And written for innovators of every industry. Sign up for the news that slaps.

If you don’t like it, unsubscribe any time. Privacy policy.

[email-submission-form redirect-to-home="true" button-text="Join Free" include-trends-opt-in="true" id="main-signup-form" fail-url="" success-url="https://thehustle.co/signup" default-source="thehustleco" default-campaign="home"]
<script type="text/javascript"> var onloadCallback = function() { grecaptcha.render('verify-your-humanity', { 'sitekey' : '6LdddrcZAAAAALyttpvOqiwQGwq5BNhgDz4tMQGE' }); }; function getCookieValue(a) { var b = document.cookie.match('(^|[^;]+)\\s*' + a + '\\s*=\\s*([^;]+)'); return b ? atob(decodeURIComponent(b.pop())) : ''; } function setHiddenFieldValue(wrappingDiv, searchParams, className, utmName, cookieName, defaultValue) { var el = wrappingDiv.getElementsByClassName(className)[0]; var existingVal = el.getAttribute('value'); var newVal = searchParams.get(utmName) || getCookieValue(cookieName); if ((existingVal == null || existingVal == '' || existingVal == defaultValue) && (newVal != null && newVal != '')) { el.setAttribute('value', newVal); } } function setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm( wrappingDiv, searchParams, className, utmName, defaultValue ) { var el = wrappingDiv.getElementsByClassName(className)[0]; if (el != null) { var existingVal = el.getAttribute("value"); var newVal = searchParams.get(utmName); if (newVal != null && newVal != "") { el.setAttribute("value", newVal); } } } function initForm() { var wrappingDivs = document.getElementsByClassName('email-submission'); wrappingDivs.forEach(wrappingDiv => { var sp = new URLSearchParams(window.location.search); setHiddenFieldValue(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-source', 'utm_source', 'funnel_source', 'thehustleco'); setHiddenFieldValue(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-campaign', 'utm_campaign', 'funnel_campaign', 'home'); setHiddenFieldValue(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-medium', 'utm_medium', 'funnel_medium', ''); setHiddenFieldValue(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-referral', 'ref', 'funnel_referral', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-a', 'a', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-c', 'c', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-o', 'o', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-oc', 'oc', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-e', 'e', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-f', 'f', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-r', 'r', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-t', 't', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-s1', 's1', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-s2', 's2', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-s3', 's3', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-s4', 's4', ''); setHiddenFieldValueFromUtm(wrappingDiv, sp, 'funnel-s5', 's5', ''); var error_message = getCookieValue('funnel_error_message'); if (error_message && error_message.trim() != '') { var error = wrappingDiv.getElementsByClassName('funnel-error')[0]; var prev_email = getCookieValue('funnel_email'); error_message = prev_email + " is not valid. Please try again"; error.innerHTML = error_message; error.style = ''; } }); if (false) { initCaptchaFormV2(); } } function initCaptchaFormV2() { var v3RecaptchaResponseEl = document.getElementById('recaptcha-response-v3'); v3RecaptchaResponseEl.parentNode.removeChild(v3RecaptchaResponseEl); var wrappingDiv = document.getElementById('main-signup-form'); var subForm = wrappingDiv.getElementsByClassName('email-submission')[0]; var captchaVersion = document.createElement('input'); captchaVersion.class = 'g-recaptcha hidden-input'; captchaVersion.type = 'hidden'; captchaVersion.name = 'g-recaptcha-response-v2'; captchaVersion.value = 'true'; subForm.appendChild(captchaVersion); var captchaEl = document.createElement('div'); captchaEl.id = 'verify-your-humanity'; subForm.appendChild(captchaEl); var captchaApiScriptEl = document.createElement('script'); captchaApiScriptEl.src = 'https://www.google.com/recaptcha/api.js?onload=onloadCallback&render=explicit'; captchaApiScriptEl.async = true; captchaApiScriptEl.defer = true; document.head.appendChild(captchaApiScriptEl); } function appendCheckboxes() { var optInDivs = document.querySelectorAll('.trends-opt-in'); optInDivs.forEach(el => { if (el.getElementsByClassName('trends-opt-in-checkbox').length < 1) { var checkbox = document.createElement('input'); checkbox.setAttribute('class', 'trends-opt-in-checkbox'); checkbox.setAttribute('type', 'checkbox'); checkbox.setAttribute('name', 'trends_opt_in'); var label = document.createElement('label'); label.setAttribute('class', 'trends-opt-in-text'); label.textContent = "Yes, I'd like to receive updates on market opportunities before they explode from Trends by The Hustle"; el.appendChild(checkbox); el.appendChild(label); checkbox.click(); } }) } window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded', (event) => { var funnel_email_cookie = getCookieValue('funnel_email'); if ( (true) && (funnel_email_cookie != null && funnel_email_cookie != '') ) { window.location.replace('/home'); } initForm(); if (true) { appendCheckboxes(); } }); </script> <div class="email-signup" id=main-signup-form> <div class="funnel-error" style="display:none;"></div> <form class="email-submission" action="https://cms.thehustle.co/api/v1/contacts/wordpress_create" method="post" autocomplete="email"> <div class="email-form-wrap"> <input class="funnel-source hidden-input" type="hidden" name="source" value="thehustleco"> <input class="funnel-campaign hidden-input" type="hidden" name="campaign" value="home"> <input class="funnel-medium hidden-input" type="hidden" name="medium"> <input class="funnel-referral hidden-input" type="hidden" name="referral_code"> <input class="funnel-fail-url hidden-input" type="hidden" name="fail_url" value=""> <input class="funnel-a hidden-input" type="hidden" name="a" value=""> <input class="funnel-c hidden-input" type="hidden" name="c" value=""> <input class="funnel-o hidden-input" type="hidden" name="o" value=""> <input class="funnel-oc hidden-input" type="hidden" name="oc" value=""> <input class="funnel-e hidden-input" type="hidden" name="e" value=""> <input class="funnel-f hidden-input" type="hidden" name="f" value=""> <input class="funnel-r hidden-input" type="hidden" name="r" value=""> <input class="funnel-t hidden-input" type="hidden" name="t" value=""> <input class="funnel-s1 hidden-input" type="hidden" name="s1" value=""> <input class="funnel-s2 hidden-input" type="hidden" name="s2" value=""> <input class="funnel-s3 hidden-input" type="hidden" name="s3" value=""> <input class="funnel-s4 hidden-input" type="hidden" name="s4" value=""> <input class="funnel-s5 hidden-input" type="hidden" name="s5" value=""> <input class="funnel-success-url hidden-input" type="hidden" name="success_url" value="https://thehustle.co/signup"> <input id="recaptcha-response-v3" class="g-recaptcha hidden-input" type="hidden" name="g-recaptcha-response" value=""> <input class="signup-email" type="email" name="email" placeholder="Your email address" required autocomplete="email"> <input class="email-submit" type="submit" value="Join Free"> </div> <div class="trends-opt-in"></div> <div submit-success> <template type="amp-mustache"> <p class="c-message c-message--success">Thank you for subscribing.</p> </template> </div> <div submit-error> <template type="amp-mustache"> <p class="c-message c-message--failed">Your submission failed. Please try again!</p> </template> </div> </form> </div>