INTRODUCTION: Black Women in the Labor Market and the Threats and
Promises of Automation
Black women have always worked outside the home despite limited occupational options, and their labor – paid and unpaid—has been central to the health and stability of their families and their communities. Goldin (1977) reports that as far back as 1890 Black women’s labor force participation was more than twice as high as their White counterparts. White women had a labor force participation rate of 16.3 percent compared with 39.7 percent for non-White women, the vast majority of whom were Black women.1 Even among married women, White women’s labor force participation rate was just 2.5 percent while for married non-white women it was 22.5 percent (Goldin 1977). Black women’s labor force participation rates remain the highest of women from any of the largest racial and ethnic groups, and in in 2017 was 60.3 percent compared with 56.4 percent for White and Hispanic women (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2018).
Despite their high labor force participation, Black women have historically been concentrated in a small number of occupations with low pay and poor working conditions. For example, in 1940 more than three-fourths of Black women worked as either private household workers or farm laborers (Cunningham and Zalokar 1992; King 1992). After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (CRA), which explicitly banned discrimination in hiring, pay, training, and promotions based on race, ethnicity and/or sex by large employers, Black women moved into a range of new occupations including clerical jobs where most workers did not need postsecondary educational credentials and the jobs paid relatively well, especially compared with the alternatives available to Black women (King 1993). Black women also increased their representation in professional occupations (Alonso-Villar and del Rio 2017, King 1993).
In spite of these gains, Black women of all ages remain concentrated in a small number of occupations and, unfortunately, many of the workers in these occupations may be at risk of displacement by technological change. Automation, artificial intelligence, and digitalization have spread rapidly over the last few decades, eliminating some jobs and changing the nature of work in others while also increasing the returns to digital skill; these trends are projected to accelerate substantially during the coming decades (Manyika et al 2017a, Muro 2017). While experts in the field produce conflicting predictions about how technology will impact job growth, there is a clear consensus that highly skilled and better educated workers will likely fare better in the future of work while those workers with less education and fewer skills face a greater risk of being replaced by automation (Autor 2015, Chen 2017, Frey and Osborne 2013). 1 According to the US Census Bureau <https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0076/twps0076.html>, Appendix Table A-1, in 1890 the US population was 87.5 percent White, 11.9 percent Black, 0.4 percent American Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut, 0.2 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, and the share of Hispanic origin is not available. 6 Irrespective of the technological potential to replace tasks through technology, it is likely that the need for digital skills will increase, including in fields such as care work that currently have very low levels of digitalization (Muro et al 2017; Hegewisch, Childers, and Hartmann 2019)
This paper focuses on the ways that automation, increased digitalization, and other technological changes between 2000 and 2016 may have impacted the employment and earnings of older Black women workers and how changes that are projected for the future are likely to impact them and their families. This paper highlights the importance of older Black women’s employment and earnings for their future and for their family’s future. Because Black women are less likely than their White and Asian counterparts to have an associates or bachelor’s degree (Hess et al. 2015), they are potentially more vulnerable to replacement by technology. Black women also have substantial caregiving responsibilities which can make it difficult for them to obtain more education and training. Older Black women may also be more at-risk of being replaced by automation/AI than younger Black women because they have been out of school longer and may be less familiar with current technology. At the same time Older Black women are often social and economic anchors within their families and communities ensuring there will be wide-ranging impacts of their displacement. Yet, if older Black women are provided with opportunities and access to the training and education needed for the new jobs of tomorrow, this can also have large impacts on their families and communities.
Key research on automation, digitalization, and the future of work are reviewed, the degree to which increased automation and digitalization have impacted the employment and earnings of older Black women is assessed, and, to the extent possible, occupational projections and assessments of the current technological ability to replace human workers with technology are applied to the occupations of women and men by race, ethnicity, and age to better understand the degree of risk facing different groups of workers. Given the growing importance of postsecondary education for access to good jobs, the paper discusses the costs and benefits of obtaining college level education and provides data on older Black women’s exposure to student debt. Finally, this paper lays out some basic policy proposals that can make the transition to the future of work smoother for all workers while ensuring that the process does disproportionately harm any particular group of workers. The paper will begin with a review of the important role of Older Black women for their families and communities.