Answering the Call of Automation: How the Labor Market Adjusted to the Mechanization of Telephone Operation

Joint with Daniel P. Gross

Revise and Resubmit, Quarterly Journal of Economics


Telephone operation was among the most common jobs for young American women in the early 1900s. Between 1920 and 1940, AT&T adopted mechanical switching technology in over half of the U.S. telephone network, replacing manual operation. Although automation eliminated most of these jobs, it did not affect future cohorts’ overall employment: the decline in operators was counteracted by reinstating demand in middle-skill clerical jobs and lower-skill service jobs. 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 have left the labor force.