Automation and the Fate of Young Workers: Evidence from Telephone Operation in the Early 20th Century
Telephone operation, one of the most common jobs for young American women in the early 1900s, provided hundreds of thousands of female workers a pathway into the labor force. Between 1920 and 1940, AT&T adopted mechanical switching technology in more than half of the U.S. telephone network, replacing manual operation. We show that although automation eliminated most of these jobs, it did not affect future cohorts' overall employment: the decline in demand for operators was counteracted by growth in both middle-skill jobs like secretarial work and lower-skill service jobs, which absorbed future generations. Using a new genealogy-based census linking method, we show that incumbent telephone operators were most impacted by automation, and a decade later were more likely to be in lower-paying occupations or have left the labor force entirely.
We thank Daron Acemoglu, David Autor, Ed Glaeser, Shane Greenstein, Bill Kerr, Frank Levy, and Bob Margo for feedback; Brian Beach, Walker Hanlon, and Pascual Restrepo for comments on an early draft; and especially Claudia Goldin for her continuous support. We also thank seminar audiences at Duke Fuqua, Florida State University, Georgia Tech Scheller, Harvard (Economics), Harvard Business School, Southern Denmark University, Stanford University, UC Davis, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Boston University Technology & Policy Research Initiative; participants at the World Economic History Congress (2018) and Southern Economic Association annual meeting (2018); and discussant Dan Rees for helpful comments. We thank Senan Hogan-Hennessy, Greg Saldutte, and Thomas Pearson for outstanding research assistance; and Elizabeth Crowley, Jesse Benedict, Yves Kertesz, and Amanda LaFauci for help collecting the data, as well as Harvard Business School for financial support. We especially would like to thank Sheldon Hochheiser and the AT&T Archives and History Center for access to AT&T archival records, feedback, and fact-checking. All errors are our own. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.