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Research

Automation of Jobs Fuels Overdose Deaths

The rise in opioid addiction has created an epidemic of drug overdose deaths in the United States. But what increases the risk that people develop the disorder in the first place?

Automation of the U.S. economy turns out to be a contributing factor, as workers lose good jobs to industrial robots and despair about being disengaged from the labor force, conclude researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale in a study funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Manufacturing jobs, often in unionized industries, used to be a major route to the middle class. But millions of factory jobs disappeared as U.S. companies moved operations overseas. Compounding the job losses, corporate employers began installing robots in their remaining domestic operations. Automation was blamed in one study for eliminating more than 700,000 jobs and causing wage stagnation in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Prior research has connected the flight of manufacturing to increasing deaths from drug overdoses. Now, the new study specifically ties technology – measured as an increase in robots per 1,000 workers – to the increase in overdose deaths.

The men who are most affected by the rise of automation are in their prime working years, and they are concentrated in more industrialized areas. Automation accounted for nearly one in five of their overdose deaths in manufacturing counties. For women, automation was responsible for one in 10 overdose deaths in manufacturing counties.

“Fading economic opportunity, whether through automation or increased exposure to international trade, may have significant negative outcomes” for workers that go beyond the loss of jobs, the researchers concluded.

There is one bright spot in this otherwise grim report: the states with the most generous Medicaid programs have mitigated some of automation’s negative impact by using some of the funding for inpatient or outpatient drug treatment. 

To read this study, authored by Atheendar Venkataramani, Elizabeth Bair and Rourke O’Brien, see “Economic Opportunity, Drug Overdose Mortality, and Disability.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

One Response to Automation of Jobs Fuels Overdose Deaths

  1. Paul Brustowicz says:

    Without reading the study, I have to ask, are these overdose deaths suicides? Were these people addicts before they lost their jobs? Would they have overdosed with a job?
    Thanks.

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