Head writer of Rockefeller International
Not long ago, authors were putting out terrible books about how the “rise of robots” would lead to the “future of the unemployed,” amid credible predictions that half of US jobs would be at risk from automation starting about now.
However, recent job reports raise a different threat: not whether robots will replace human labor, but whether they will get here fast enough to save the global economy from a labor shortage.
The worldwide unemployment rate is 4.5 percent, the lowest level since world records began in 1980. The labor shortage has reached record levels in advanced economies, including the United Kingdom and the United States. There are now 11.2 million jobs for 5.6 million job seekers in the United States, the largest gap since the 1950s. Millions of workers who quit during the pandemic have yet to return, adding to the desperation of bosses.
These pressures are now exacerbated in large part because growth in the working-age population – those between the ages of 15 and 64 – has begun to decline, while the proportion of the elderly is swelling. Accelerated aging is in turn a belated result of societal transformations that began decades ago: women having fewer children and science extending life expectancy.
The working-age population is shrinking in nearly 40 countries, including most major economic powers, compared to just two in the early 1980s. The United States is going down less steeply than most countries, but it’s in the same fundamental reform. More than any other factor, fewer workers ensure slower economic growth, so most countries will need more robots just to keep growing.
Tech pessimists are still sounding the alarm, saying the specter of bots stealing jobs and undermining wages will re-emerge as the pandemic fades and dropouts return to work, which they may do. . . or may not. In both cases, underlying demographic trends are predictive of persistent shortages.
Among the countries worst affected are China, Japan, Germany and South Korea – all of which are expected to see their working-age population decline by at least 400,000 per year until 2030. Not coincidentally, these countries already host high concentrations of robots, which are in the process of recycling. know more. Japanese manufacturers deploy nearly 400 robots for every 10,000 workers, up from 300 just four years ago.
China, in its top-down fashion, provides huge subsidies to robotics makers, aiming to increase their production by 20 percent annually through 2030. Even at this pace, Bernstein analysts predict, robots cannot fill all the gaps in the workforce, which China expects to shrink 35 million workers in the next three years.
Governments can respond to labor shortages in other ways — by paying fathers bonuses for having more children, encouraging women to enter or return to work, welcoming immigrants or raising the retirement age. But all of these steps are sparking human resistance, especially in the age of angry populists.
Robots elicit different reactions, a vague fear of machines and artificial intelligence that takes shape primarily in books, rarely a protest against job theft. Meanwhile, the robots are quietly arriving at the loading dock, unchallenged.
Like previous innovations, robots kill some professions and create others. The gas engine made the horse carriage driver obsolete but it made the taxi driver obsolete. About a third of the jobs created in the United States are in fields that did not exist or barely existed 25 years ago. And third, “it will change radically over the next 15-20 years,” according to the OECD. Technology brings disruption, not destruction that nothing follows – as the “future of the unemployed” suggests.
Each robot can replace three or more factory workers, which is the group most affected. But the degree of disruption depends on the often exaggerated pace of change. Forecasters since the 1950s have predicted the arrival of full AI within 20 years, but it hasn’t arrived yet. Dire warnings that self-driving vehicles will eliminate one of America’s most common jobs – truck drivers – have given way to a shortage of truck drivers.
Now a recession looms, but unemployment rates are unlikely to rise to the high levels of previous recessions, because the workforce is shrinking again. Fewer workers will leave the labor market tighter than usual during the business cycle, even as robots continue to proliferate.
They can’t get there too soon. Because of the unexpectedly sharp drop in birth rates, the United Nations recently raised its forecasts for the pace of population decline, from the United States to China. It takes years for the births to affect the workforce, but smart governments will act now, by attracting more women, immigrants, the elderly, and – yes – robots into the workforce. The other option is fewer workers, robotic or not, and a future without growth.
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