What Will AI Mean for Older Workers?

June 1, 2018

In recent years, the media have produced untold number of stories on the future of work as new technologies come online. Artificial intelligence, we’re told, could be the death knell for jobs. Little attention, however, has been paid to what these changes mean in the context of another monumental change: the aging workforce.

The question of how the tech economy might disrupt the lives of older workers was front and center in this year’s Robert N. Butler and Jack Rosenthal Age Boom Academy, an annual forum organized by the Columbia Aging Center to educate journalists about the complex health, social, and economic issues facing our aging population.

“Technology is changing and will continue to change at an unprecedented pace,” said Linda P. Fried, Dean of the Mailman School, at the Friday morning session held at Columbia’s Journalism School. “In many cases, it will eliminate the need for jobs in areas of expertise people built over their careers, and transform those jobs into things that weren’t previously imagined.”

According to an Oxford University report, half of all American jobs could be replaced by robots and automation in the next 20 years. At the same time, people are living and working longer. Given these intersecting trends, will older workers be forced into low-wage service jobs, or will they get the training they need to adapt to an economy that increasingly demands high-tech skills?

Thomas Malone, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, presented an optimistic view. Throughout human history, he said, major technological advances like the invention of the printing press have created more jobs than they destroyed. Artificial intelligence too could be a positive for older workers, for example, by serving as a “cognitive prosthesis” to compensate for age-related memory loss.

Age Boom Academy was founded in 1999 by journalist Jack Rosenthal and gerontologist Robert Butler to encourage more media stories on the diverse challenges and contributions of older adults. Rosenthal was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor at the New York Times; Butler was the founding director of the National Institute on Aging and the International Longevity Center-USA, the latter now housed at the Columbia Aging Center. Today the program is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

In remarks made last year before he died, Rosenthal encouraged journalists to flip the script on aging, away from depictions of dependency and toward stories that highlight older adult’s worth. “With 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day,” he wrote, “older adults may be the nation’s most valuable resource.”

Dozens of academics, advocates, and journalists—including famous names like Walter Cronkite, Carl Bernstein, and Cory Booker—have presented at Age Boom over the years, addressing a wide range of topics: ageism (a term coined by Robert Butler), the science of longevity, economic insecurity, end of life care, elder abuse, the sustainability of social safety net programs, among many others. More than 200 journalists have taken part as Age Boom Fellows—220 counting this year’s participants.

Chris Farrell, an economics reporter at American Public Media’s Marketplace radio program, is one of four Senior Fellows who helped facilitate discussions at this year’s Age Boom Academy. Over the last 20 years ago, Farrell says he has observed a marked shift in the way aging is covered. “Twenty years ago, the stories were about saving for retirement and the best places to retire to,” he says. “Today, there is a greater appreciation for the diversity of older people’s experiences and issues like income inequality and ageism. It’s a much broader conversation.”

Farrell, the author of Unretirement: How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life, has a longstanding interested in the economics of people living longer lives, and engaged with the topic well before participating in Age Boom Academy. Even so, he finds the experience valuable.   

“I’m always learning something,” says Farrell, “both from the expert speakers and from fellow journalists. I always come out of Age Boom with a lot of story ideas. That’s how I define success.”