Rise of the machines to blame for the lacklustre US recovery

Roombas may look cute, but not when they're taking your job.

The Washington Post's Dylan Matthews highlights a new NBER working paper (£) by Duke University’s Nir Jaimovich and the University of British Columbia’s Henry E. Siu which examines why "jobless recoveries" have become the norm in the US after recent recessions. The short version is that it's all about the robots.

The history of the US labour market since the 1980s has been one of "job polarisation", the authors argue:

[E]mployment is becoming increasingly concentrated at the tails of the occupational skill distribution. This hollowing out of the middle has been linked to the disappearance of jobs focused on “routine” tasks – those activities that can be performed by following a well-defined set of procedures. Autor et al. (2003) and the subsequent literature demonstrates that job polarization is due to progress in technologies that substitute for labor in routine tasks.

At one end of the market are non-routine cognitive jobs, "such as physicians, public relations managers, financial analysts, computer programmers, and economists" (and, one would hope, journalists), while at the other end are non-routine manual occupations "including janitors, gardeners, manicurists, bartenders, and home health aides". Polarisation of the labour market comes from technological improvement replacing people in routine jobs, both manual and cognitive – "secretaries, bank tellers, retail salespeople … dressmakers, cement masons, and meat processing workers."

The classic victim of mechanisation is the factory worker, but it actually hits a far more varied cross-section of careers. Think about automated phone trees replacing secretaries, self-checkouts replacing retail workers, or Oyster cards obviating the need for ticket sales on the London Underground. In fact, according to the Council on Foreign Relations' Edward Alden, manufacturing itself has largely reached maximum automation already:

Manufacturing output in the United States is no longer growing as rapidly as it once was (and as you would expect if technology had simply been replacing workers in factories). Real manufacturing output grew just 15 percent in the 2000s, compared with more than 35 percent in each of the 1970s and 1980s and more than 50 percent in the 1990s.

In itself, this technological change is obviously not something to bemoan – it represents society getting more productivity out of fewer people. If we wanted to follow Keynes, we could literally give all of those people replaced by robots permanent paid holidays and the economy would be no worse off. In actual fact, of course, we realise that improvement not as an increase in leisure time, but as an increase in output: the freshly unemployed are sent out to find more employment, and technological growth results.

This would be relatively pain-free if it happened at a slow, background pace, but that's not the case. Instead, "the decline in routine occupations is concentrated in economic downturns":

Following the peak in 1990, per capita employment in these occupations fell 3.5% to the trough of the 1991 recession, and a further 1.8% during the subsequent jobless recovery. After a minor rebound, employment was essentially flat until the 2001 recession. In the two year window around the 2001 trough, this group shed 6.3% of its employment, before levelling off again. Routine employment has plummeted again in the Great Recession – 12.0% in the two year window around the trough – with no subsequent recovery.

The above chart shows routine employment in the US, with recessions overlaid in shaded pink – and the precipitous decline, and lack of recovery is clear to see.

Gradually, the people who did these routine jobs will filter up or down the skills ladder. The lucky, privileged or smart ones will up-skill and end up in non-routine cognitive work, while the rest will fight for the pool of non-routine manual jobs.

Employment will, eventually, rebound from this slump. As growth returns – helped by the new efficiencies of technological change – there will be more jobs at both the top and bottom of the skills ladder. But as technological progress continues, the safe niches of high- and low-skilled jobs may themselves come under attack.

In May, Martha Gill reported that robots are now writing business stories (which is totally fine), and in June, Rafael Behr wrote about the fear in Downing Street prompted by the rise of the robolawyers:

What happens when the same dynamic creeps up the skills ladder? What are the social and political consequences when white-collar, middle class jobs are increasingly outsourced or done by computers? Plenty of professionals who thought they were immune to the labour market pressures exerted by globalisation will suddenly start to feel very insecure. This is a change that could make itself felt easily within a decade.

What's strange about the whole thing is that, viewed from a macroeconomic point of view, this ought to be good news. If ever fewer people can create ever more "stuff" (be that widgets, legal documents, or business reports), then the potential is for everyone to be better off. The sad reality, of course, is that in the UK and US, the attitude is largely a laissez-faire rejection of the state's responsibility to smooth over the turbulence of structural shifts. But as ministers start to see people like them suffering the same changes that their constituents have for three decades now, there is the chance that real change may finally be possible. There have been attempts to tackle what such a change would mean, from nef's call for a 21 hour week, to the Green Party's suggestion of a Citizen's Income. Or maybe its just more, better targeted, and higher quality opportunities for, and support during, retraining which are needed.

Either way, we've got until the next recession to get some plans in order, or we will have to go through the same routine all over again. And when the robojournalists come for me, I want an exit strategy.

Update

A commenter is concerned about the fact that the above chart uses an unfamiliar y-axis.

The graph is presented as the log value of the employment rate for routine industries, defined in the paper as:

“Sales and related occupations”, “office and administrative support occupations”, “production occupations”, “transportation and material moving occupations”, “construction and extraction occupations”, and “installation, maintenance, and repair occupations”.

Employment rate rather than employment level is used so that the effect the authors are discussing is not masked by population increases. I've charted the sum of the routine employment level as well as the sum of the routine employment level divided by the working age population (roughly equivalent to employment rate), which ought to demonstrate why the latter is used.

As for taking the log value, rather than the absolute percentage, we do that because when comparing different percentages, the log rate evens out differences between changes at high percentages and changes at low percentages. The difference between 2% and 1% is one percentage point, and the difference between 20% and 10% is ten percentage points, but the difference between both log(20%) and log(10%), and log(2%) and log(1%), is 0.3.

A wannabe robojournalist. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until it has filed copy. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.