How Automation Shapes the Labor Market AND Political Preferences, By Thomas Kurer and Bruno Palier     Print Email

How automation shapes the labor market AND political preferences

By Thomas Kurer, University of Zurich and Bruno Palier, Sciences Po, Paris

We do not believe that Brexit, Trump, or the alarming success of radical right parties in almost all European countries should be interpreted as mere “electoral accidents.” Instead, we suggest that the current destructuring of political systems is connected to the profound transformation of labor markets in times of automation. Our core argument is that the specific effects of current technological innovations are key to understanding their political implications.

In a recently published special issue of Research and Politics, we study the political consequences of workplace automation and argue that the relationship between technological change and recent political disruptions in many West European countries deserves more attention. We contend that the current destructuring of political systems is connected to the profound transformation of labor markets in times of automation.

The electoral repercussions of this profound transformation of labor markets have important implications for social policy reform in the age of automation. The disadvantages of new technologies in the workplace are concentrated among middle-skilled routine workers (both in the manufacturing and service sectors) whose main tasks prove particularly susceptible to automation. This pattern of routine-biased technological change results in a decline in routine jobs on one hand  and growing opportunities in non-routine jobs on the other, with the result “hollowing of the middle.“

Increasingly bleak prospects in mid-skilled routine jobs highlight the delicate situation of the lower middle class in times of automation. Yet, while fears of falling down the social scale are certainly well-founded, many routine workers actually manage to avoid the experience of economic hardship. Routine work often disappears through “natural turnover”, that is lower entry and higher exit rates, and only a minority ends up unemployed. “Survivors” in routine work face economic stagnation compared to highly skilled and highly specialised non-routine worker.  This makes political repercussions highly likely. Routine workers are a large and electorally relevant group with the capacity to actively voice dissatisfaction in the political arena.

We contend that existing research has not sufficiently and systematically connected the implications of technological change with contemporary changes in the political landscapes of post-industrial democracies.  A focus on the usual indicators of economic disadvantage, e.g. low income, unemployment or precarious working conditions, will not fully capture routine workers’ grievances. For example, the dualisation literature, one of the most influential strands of research in comparative political economy in recent years, is not well-suited to analysing the fate of routine workers because it emphasises the problems of labour market outsiders without analysing the fears of the lower middle class (i.e. the fear of becoming an outsider).

The relative economic decline of historically dominant core groups is a likely source of discontent and insecurity. As a consequence, we might not observe the strongest political reaction among the hardest-hit but rather among those who are most concerned about their economic well-being and future prospects in the labour market.

One article in our special issue provides empirical evidence that the risk of automation is positively related to support for social conservatism and support for the (populist) radical right. The people most likely to vote for these parties were most threatened by the automation of their jobs and had incomes that were just sufficient or short of carrying them through the end of the month.

The political disruptions we currently observe around the world are thus a likely expression of fears revolving around workplace automation and economic modernisation. In contrast to what might have been expected, the pendulum has not swung back to the left. Instead, right-wing populist parties’ promises to turn back the clock seem to strike a chord with routine workers’ fears.  Far right challenger parties explicitly acknowledge and address the widespread anxieties among the shrinking middle and thereby gain their support – despite the virtual absence of concrete policy remedies.

What does this all mean with regard to adequate policy remedies and the adjustment of social policy in the digital age? An important implication of the central role of relative economic decline and social status in routine workers' election calculus is that political contestation tends to be skewed in favour of political challengers or newcomers. It is far from obvious which concrete policy response could mitigate the perceived decay of traditional values and the declining esteem of ordinary work. If routine workers’ grievances are not primarily about material concerns, expanding social security will be an ineffective remedy and mainstream parties will have a hard time satisfying routine workers’ demands.

Indeed, Jane Gingrich provides sobering evidence on mainstream parties’ limited leeway to compensate the losers of economic modernisation. This highlights the strategic disadvantage of responsible mainstream parties. Challenger parties thrive on a less policy-based, less programmatic appearance, which makes it easier to appeal to the subtle, perhaps slightly diffuse fears and demands of those fearing the negative consequences of technological change.


Thomas Kurer is a Senior Researcher at the Department of Political Science, University of Zurich. Previously, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University. His main research interests lie at the intersection of comparative politics, political economy and political sociology.  He is particularly interested in the political consequences of technological innovation and occupational change in post-industrial societies.


Bruno Palier is CNRS Research Director at Sciences Po, Centre d’études européennes et de politique comparée. Trained in social science, he has a PHD in Political science, and is a former student of Ecole Normale Superieure. He is currently director of LIEPP (Laboratoryfor interdisciplinary Evaluation of Public Policies). He works on the comparative political economy of welfare state reforms. He is currently co-leading a project on the world politics of social Investment and another one on Growth and Welfare in Global Capitalism.