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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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.