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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Celebrate Labour's electoral success - but don't forget the working class

The shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face. 

In the moment when the exit poll was released on 8 June, after seven weeks of slogging up and down the streets of Britain, dealing with scepticism, doubt and sometimes downright hostility, we felt a combination of relief, optimism, even euphoria.
 
This election broke wide open some assumptions that have constrained us on the left for too long; that the young won’t vote, that any one individual or political party is “unelectable”, that perceptions of both individuals, parties and even policies cannot change suddenly and dramatically. It reminded us that courage, ambition and hope are what’s needed and what have been missing from our politics, too often, for too long.
 
We have learnt to tread carefully and wear our values lightly. But in recent weeks we have remembered that our convictions can, as Jonathan Freedland once wrote, “bring hope flickering back to life” and meet the growing appetite for a politics that doesn’t simply rail against what is but aspires to build a world that is better.
 
In this election at least, it seems the final, anticipated fracture of Labour from its working-class base after Brexit did not materialise. Shortly before the snap election was called I wrote that while Brexit appeared to be Labour’s greatest weakness, it could just be our biggest strength, because: “consider what remain voting Tottenham and leave voting Wigan have in common: Labour… We will succeed if we seek the common ground shared by the decent, sensible majority, and more importantly, so will Britain.”
 
But consider this too. The Tories ran a terrible campaign. It was, without any doubt,the most inept, counter-productive campaign I’ve ever seen in British politics. The day their manifesto hit the headlines, even in our toughest neighbourhoods, we could feel change in the air. Arrogance is never rewarded by the British people and Theresa May has paid a price for it. Yet, despite a Tory manifesto that was a full, square attack on older people, the majority of over 65s still came out for the Tories.
 
And despite the growing relevance of freedom, internationalism and tolerance in an era characterised by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Liberal Democrats managed to become bystanders in the political debate. They stood on a platform that aimed to capture the support of those remain voters for whom Brexit is the major question, but neglected the rest. And they quite spectacularly failed to foresee that those who were intensely angered by May’s conversion to a little England, hard Brexit stance would vote tactically against the Tories. Over those seven weeks, they all but disappeared as a political force.
 
As Bob Dylan once said, "the times, they are a-changin" – and they will change again. The recent past has moved at extraordinary speed. The Brexit Referendum, the rise and retreat of nationalism, the election of Trump and his crushing unpopularity just a few months later, the reversal in fortunes for May and Jeremy Corbyn, the astonishing phenomenon of Emmanuel Macron and pro-European centrism, and the dramatic rise and sudden collapse of Ukip. Politics, as John Harris wrote last week, is now more fluid than ever. So now is the time, for hope yes, and for conviction too, but not for jubilation. We need some serious thinking. 
 
We should be cautious to rush to judgment. It is only two weeks since the exit poll sent shockwaves across the country. There is no comprehensive explanation for the multitude of motivations that delivered this election result and will not be for some time. But there are some early indictors that must make us think. 
 
After seven years of austerity, as John Curtice observes, the Tories made some of their biggest gains in some of the poorest areas of Britain. It is something I felt in all of the eight constituencies I campaigned in during the election. While the Labour vote rose significantly in towns like Wigan, so too did the Tory vote, despite little or no campaigning activity on the ground. As Rob Ford puts it, “Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales… Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017”.
 
To acknowledge the growing, longstanding scepticism of many working-class men, and women, towards Labour in towns across England is not to take away from the hard work and drive of the activists, advisers and politicians that helped to fuel such a dramatic turnaround for Labour during the short campaign. To have won considerable gains in wealthier suburbs is no small achievement. 
 
But if the future of Labour lies in a coalition between middle-class young professionals and the working class, what is the glue that binds? While there is shared agreement about investment in public services, how are those interests to be squared on areas like national security and immigration? I believe it can and must be done, but – as I said to conference when I was first elected seven years ago - it will demand that we begin with the difficult questions, not the easy ones.  
 
Just a few days before the election, statistics were released that pointed to a collapse in trade union membership. What does the decline of an organised Labour movement mean for who we are and what we can achieve? These are not new questions. They were posed by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant lecture, "The Forward March of Labour Halted" in 1979 - a challenge laid down in the year I was born. Now, 37 years on, we are no further down the road to answering it. 
 
The most dramatic finding from this election was the support Corbyn’s Labour party appears to have won from middle-class, young professionals. They said he couldn’t do it and quite stunningly it seems they were wrong. But a ComRes poll last week caught my eye – by a large margin those 30-44 year olds would favour a new centre-ground political party over the current political settlement. In an election where we returned strongly to two-party politics, it appears they moved to us. But what would a dynamic and renewed Liberal Democrat Party, or a British En Marche do to our support base?
 
After a hellish two years we have learnt in Labour, I hope, that unity matters. The public and private anger directed towards each other, whether the Labour leadership, the parliamentary Labour party or elected councillors, is desperately damaging and its (relative) absence in the campaign was important.
 
But unity is not the same as uniformity, and while two weeks ago I felt there was a real danger of historic fracture, now I believe the shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face, and must avoid. No one person, faction or party has ever had the monopoly on wisdom. The breadth of the Labour movement was and remains our greatest strength. 
 
Consider the Labour manifesto, which drew on every tradition across our movement and demanded that every part of the party had to compromise. Those broad traditions still matter and are still relevant because they hear and are attuned to different parts of Britain. Our country is changing and politics must catch up. The future will be negotiated, not imposed.
 
As we witness the age of "strong man" politics across the world, here in Britain our political culture has become angrier and more illiberal than at any time I can remember. The Brexit debate was characterised by rage, misinformation and a macho political culture that demanded that we abandon nuance and complexity, an understanding of one another and tolerance of different points of view.
 
But this is not where the future of Britain lies: it lies in pluralism. It lies in a politics that is nimbler, more fleet of foot, less constrained; a return to the great tradition of debate, evidence, experience and argument as a way to build broad coalitions and convince people; not shouting one another down, nor believing any of us are always right; an arena in which we listen as much as we speak; a political culture in which we are capable of forming alliances within and across party lines to achieve real, lasting change.
 
And ultimately that’s the prize: not just seek power but, to paraphrase a philosopher whose work inspired millions, in the end “the point is to change it”. We could sit tight in Labour and hope to see the current government fall apart. We might even inherit power, we could temporarily reverse some of the worst of the last seven years, but what then? If we have learnt anything from 13 years of Labour government it should be this: that to build lasting change is the hardest political task of all, and it requires now that we do not turn to the political culture, the tools or even the ideas of the past, but that we think hard about where the future of our movement and our country really lies. Now is not the time to sit back and celebrate. Now is the time to think.

 

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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