Information Helps to Correct Distorted Image of Digitalisation as Job Killer


Is digitalisation a job killer? Most studies do not suggest that automation processes following digitalisation will eliminate more jobs than they create. Nevertheless, public opinion tends to perceive digitalisation as a threat. Such fears in turn affect political and social preferences as well as individual labour market decisions and thus influences the impact of digitalisation. But: Information campaigns can help to correct the distorted perception in the population. These are key findings of a survey conducted by ZEW Mannheim.

The ZEW study shows that citizens in Germany and the USA fear the advance of digital technologies: The majority of respondents assume that jobs will be lost and that low-skilled workers in particular will be affected, causing inequality to increase – at least that is the prevailing assumption. A third are also worried about their own prospects on the labour market. However, the extent of these worries is scientifically unfounded: “Current studies tend to indicate that digitalisation creates more new jobs than it destroys old ones,” says Professor Melanie Arntz, co-author of the study and deputy head of the ZEW Research Unit “Labour Markets and Social Insurance”. Fears of digital technologies, especially in the US, are also closely related to general political and economic beliefs of the respondents. This is an indication that the perception of digitalisation could also be a consequence of a lack of awareness of the findings of the majority of recent studies on the subject.

Information diminishes fear of automation

So what to do to counter the false narrative? “In our study, we found that information campaigns can mitigate these fears. Respondents who were informed about study results that the adoption of new digital technologies did not have a negative impact on overall employment were less concerned afterwards; the information thus diminished fears of automation,” says Arntz. The effect of the information campaign was particularly strong among those who had previously been particularly pessimistic about technological change and its impact on the role of human workforce.

Concerns influence digitalisation trend

The researchers also found that the question of whether or not individuals have a positive attitude towards new developments has actual consequences: “People who perceive digitalisation as a threat call for more intervention and support from policymakers,” says Dr. Sebastian Blesse, a researcher in ZEW’s “Corporate Taxation and Public Finance” Unit. Compared to Germany, the call for political intervention is particularly strong in the US, the researchers say. “Since the welfare system and redistribution are not as emphasised in the USA as in Germany, the fear of automation is expressed more loudly there by calling on the state to respond to the presumed threat,” says Blesse.

The distorted perception thus also influences the political needs in a society. Not only engagement on the political level, but also on the individual level is influenced, as the ZEW study shows: Concerns about digitalisation go hand in hand with a higher willingness to adapt to changes, to change jobs or to invest in one’s own education. It also shows that information campaigns do reduce automation fears; however, the conclusions that people draw from this information for political and individual action differ greatly between those with fundamentally optimistic or pessimistic preconceptions. General information campaigns are therefore likely to be unsuitable for promoting political consensus in societies.