Robobacklash: do we even need to worry about automation in the workplace?

Where there's a popular view, there's always a backlash.

The trendy view that robots — or the ever increasing automation of human labour, at least — are going to cause major economic problems in the near future has started getting its backlash.

The argument is that we are entering a period when automation will very quickly replace huge numbers of jobs — some estimates say up to 70 per cent of existing American jobs won't exist by 2100 — and that that shift has already begun, explaining a number of concerning economic phenomena over the last 30 or so years, including the declining labour share of income, increasing inequality, and the decoupling of the median wage from GDP.

That analysis has led to some strange contortions from mainstream economists trying to conceive of capitalism in a world in which work was not necessary, leading some, myself included, to suggest that in that extreme example, it might be worth re-examining the basic tenets of economics.

But once the robots problem hit the mainstream, as evidenced by the Financial Times' Edward Luce writing that Obama must face the rise of the robots, it started being re-examined with a more critical eye. 

The Atlantic's Derek Thompson argues that our problem now is "a deficit of demand", and our problem in the future can be dealt with in the future.

Matthew O'Brien, writing for the same publication, points out that what that deficit of demand means is that in the near term, automation won't lead to job losses, but it will keep pay well below where we'd like it. He concludes that "globalization, mechanization, and the decline of unions have all helped capital and hurt labor, but so has inadequate demand the past decade."

The TUC's Duncan Weldon has addressed the case of robots in the present day, and came to much the same conclusion. He writes that the rising profit share of income is concentrated almost entirely in the finance sector, and argues the likely cause is that that sector managed to ensure that the distribution of risk in innovation was spread widely, while the distribution of the the rewards was increasingly narrow.

Wheldon's conclusion is that the problem in the present day is less of a problem than it seems: with well-targeted redistribution of wealth, the benefits of productivity growth in the sectors where innovation has been successful can be used to pay for decent services everywhere else. What we're seeing is not, then, a crisis in automation, but a simpler crisis in distribution.

I am inclined to agree with Weldon when it comes to the present day. The effect of automation today isn't categorically different from from the effect thirty years ago, but it combines with the receding desire for redistribution and the slack demand stemming from the financial crisis with pernicious results.

But when it comes to the effects of future automation, no-one the attitude that "we'll deal with it when we come to it" strikes me as dangerous. We don't know a huge amount about what the effects will be, but it's clear they'll happen gradually, over the next century; there's the very real risk of a "boiled frog" problem, where we don't realise that the entire system is in crisis until its too late.

At best, if the predictions are accurate, we've got an upheaval of similar magnitude to the Industrial Revolution. That resulted in massive gains the world over, but only after well over a century of struggle. Life for the average factory worker in the 1800s was hardly better than it was for the average agricultural labourer in the 1750s, though you can be certain that the merchant class saw a hefty improvement. It took world wars, nationalised industries, continued worker's struggle and massive redistribution of wealth to temper the distortions down to a level which could be described as sustainable.

Ideally, we should be planning to achieve the gains of the Industrial Revolution without the 18-hour days, sundering of families and massive environmental upheaval that came alongside it. Burying our heads in the sand until the 21st century's dark satanic mills have already arisen is not the best way to bring that about.

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.

Photo: Getty
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There's just one future for the left: Jeremy Corbyn

Labour's new leader is redefining Labour for the 21st century, argues Liam Young. 

The politics of the resurgent left comes down to one simple maxim: people are sick and tired of establishment politics. When one makes this statement it is usually met with some form of disapproval. But it is important to realise that there are two different types of people that you have this conversation with.

First there are the people I surround myself with in a professional environment: political types. Then there are the people I surround myself with socially: normal people.

Unsurprisingly the second category is larger than the first and it is also more important. We may sit on high horses on Twitter or Facebook and across a multitude of different media outlets saying what we think and how important what we think is, but in reality few outside of the bubble could care less.

People who support Jeremy Corbyn share articles that support Jeremy Corbyn - such as my own. People who want to discredit Jeremy Corbyn share articles that discredit Jeremy Corbyn - like none of my own. It is entirely unsurprising right? But outside of this bubble rests the future of the left. Normal people who talk about politics for perhaps five minutes a day are the people we need to be talking to, and I genuinely believe that Labour is starting to do just that.

People know that our economy is rigged and it is not just the "croissant eating London cosmopolitans" who know this. It is the self-employed tradesman who has zero protection should he have to take time off work if he becomes ill. It is the small business owner who sees multi-national corporations get away with paying a tiny fraction of the tax he or she has to pay. And yes, it is the single mother on benefits who is lambasted in the street without any consideration for the reasons she is in the position she is in. And it is the refugee being forced to work for less than the minimum wage by an exploitative employer who keeps them in line with the fear of deportation. 

The odds are stacked against all normal people, whether on a zero hours contract or working sixty hours a week. Labour has to make the argument from the left that is inclusive of all. It certainly isn’t an easy task. But we start by acknowledging the fact that most people do not want to talk left or right – most people do not even know what this actually means. Real people want to talk about values and principles: they want to see a vision for the future that works for them and their family. People do not want to talk about the politics that we have established today. They do not want personality politics, sharp suits or revelations on the front of newspapers. This may excite the bubble but people with busy lives outside of politics are thoroughly turned off by it. They want solid policy recommendations that they believe will make their lives better.

People have had enough of the same old, of the system working against them and then being told that it is within their interest to simply go along with it.  It is our human nature to seek to improve, to develop. At the last election Labour failed to offer a vision of future to the electorate and there was no blueprint that helped people to understand what they could achieve under a Labour government. In the states, Bernie Sanders is right to say that we need a political revolution. Here at home we've certainly had a small one of our own, embodying the disenchantment with our established political discourse. The same-old will win us nothing and that is why I am firmly behind Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of a new politics – the future of the left rests within it. 

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.