Answering the Call of Automation: How the Labor Market Adjusted to Mechanizing Telephone Operation
In the early 1900s, telephone operation was among the most common jobs for American women, and telephone operators were ubiquitous. Between 1920 and 1940, AT&T undertook one of the largest automation investments in modern history, replacing operators with mechanical switching technology in over half of the U.S. telephone network. Using variation across U.S. cities in the timing of adoption, we study how this wave of automation affected the labor market for young women. Although automation eliminated most of these jobs, it did not reduce future cohorts' overall employment: the decline in operators was counteracted by employment growth in middle-skill clerical jobs and lower- skill service jobs, including in new categories of work. Using a new genealogy-based census-linking method, we show that incumbent telephone operators were most impacted, and a decade later more likely to be in lower-paying occupations or no longer working.