Robots coming over here, taking our jobs

…building our utopias.

Robots are replacing workers. That's the conclusion a number of economists and economics writers have come to after looking at the ever-declining share of income which goes to labour. We touched upon the trend briefly in September, when we covered research which argued that America's "jobless recovery" was due to an above-average amount of lost jobs being replaced with automation, not rehiring. But since then, it's gone global.

The FT's Izabella Kaminska was one of the first people (with one rather important exception) to properly communicate how game-changing the idea might be. Take this, from last August:

Could the jobless recovery be signalling that technology has lead to the sort of abundance and productivity that leaves NAIRU — the unemployment rate below which inflation rises — with no choice but to recalibrate higher, if returns on capital investment are to be protected?

The rationale being, if NAIRU was unnaturally low in the 1990s — meaning everyone could have a job without there being inflationary consequences since productivity was deflating unit labour costs — did the buck break on account of capital, not low interest rates or inflationary forces? That’s to say, productivity had become so great, that the economy could no longer afford to keep hiring workers without pushing unit labour costs to a point where goods and output would infringe on profitability directly?

During previous periods when jobs have been replaced by automation, there's been a temporary shift to unemployment, and then other, growing, sectors of the economy have taken up the labour. Mechanised threshing machines destroyed one type of labour at the same time as the rise of the factory created another type.

But that coping mechanism may not always work. Kevin Kelly writes for Wired:

It may be hard to believe, but before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will likewise be replaced by automation. Yes, dear reader, even you will have your job taken away by machines. In other words, robot replacement is just a matter of time.

70 per cent of jobs going in a century would be an unprecedented structural shift. It might settle down eventually — with an entirely new class of un-automatable jobs — but there's just as much chance that it wouldn't. Once a robot can do 70 per cent of jobs — and "robot" here covers things like algorithms which can write news stories or perform basic paralegal work as well as simple physical labour — it's hard to conceive of a class of jobs which would be so innate to humans as to enable a large proportion of people to be employed in them yet still impossible to automate.

That may be the trend we're seeing now. Currently, robots are depressing the labour share of income by being expensive, ensuring that workers have to lower their wages for fear of being replaced by a machine. But eventually, even that won't work; and then the wages of the few jobs which aren't automated will also be depressed, as a large pool of people compete for them.

Noah Smith, in the Atlantic, has some suggestions on how to cope. Here's the first:

It should be easier for the common people to own their own capital - their own private army of robots. That will mean making "small business owner" a much more common occupation than it is today (some would argue that with the rise of freelancing, this is already happening). Small businesses should be very easy to start, and regulation should continue to favor them. It's a bit odd to think of small businesses as a tool of wealth redistribution, but strange times require strange measures.

What's stranger, though, is what happens when we take a step back and look at this problem critically. With fewer people working than ever before, we can still make enough for our quality of life to carry on unchanged. Over the next century, 70 per cent of people could stop working — or the same number of people could work 70 per cent fewer hours — and there would be no material difference. Consider Smith's "ultimate extreme example":

Imagine a robot that costs $5 to manufacture and can do everything you do, only better. You would be as obsolete as a horse.

That's not a nightmare. It's a utopia. To turn it into a nightmare, we need the addendum: "Imagine that robot is owned by an individual who reaps all the rewards from its existence." In other words, imagine the possibilities of a utopia conflicting with the ugly practicalities of capitalism.

There's a reason Kaminska was only one of the first to address this problem if we ignored an important exception. It has strong roots in Marxist theory. And if we do encounter this "problem" in reality, it may be that the best solution has its roots in a similar area.

A bomb disposal robot takes part in a police graduation ceremony in Tripoli. 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.

Getty
Show Hide image

In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”