Robots are stealing our jobs. That was the dismal conclusion of a three-part series by the Associated Press on the rise of automation that is killing the middle class. Across every developed country and every industry, human labor is being replaced by machines. For the first time ever, we’ve experienced a truly jobless recovery. These jobs are gone. They aren’t coming back and we have no idea how to replace them.
As the Associated Press reports:
In the United States, half the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession were in industries that pay middle-class wages, ranging from $38,000 to $68,000. But only 2 percent of the 3.5 million jobs gained since the recession ended in June 2009 are in midpay industries. Nearly 70 percent are in low-pay industries, 29 percent in industries that pay well.
In the 17 European countries that use the euro as their currency, the numbers are even worse. Almost 4.3 million low-pay jobs have been gained since mid-2009, but the loss of midpay jobs has never stopped. A total of 7.6 million disappeared from January 2008 through last June.
Experts warn that this “hollowing out” of the middle-class workforce is far from over. They predict the loss of millions more jobs as technology becomes even more sophisticated and reaches deeper into our lives. Maarten Goos, an economist at the University of Leuven in Belgium, says Europe could double its middle-class job losses.
This robot-induced unemployment apocalypse has been fermenting for decades, but it’s accelerated in recent times, in part due to the world’s financial woes. Forced to lay off millions, companies quickly found ways to get by with less human labor. New jobs simply aren’t being created fast enough. As with most things technological, progression forward will inevitably be exponential. This chart from MIT’s Andrew McAfee paints a gloomy portrait of our jobless futures. Corporate profits are skyrocketing even as employment ratios hit all time lows.
In the very short term, it creates a worrying class problem. In economics, this is considered a “capital-biased technological change,” which as Paul Krugman noted last month, “tends to shift the distribution of income away from workers to the owners of capital.” The first jobs to go are of the menial, repetitive type, the kind of blue collar work that was once the springboard for the American Dream. It’s also bad for technocentric young people, as Jeffrey D. Sachs and Laurence J. Kotlikoff illustrate in their working paper, "Smart Machines and Long-Term Misery." Not only does the robot invasion depress wages and kill jobs, it makes it harder and more expensive for 20-somethings to gain the necessary skills for middle class work (unless of course, they all learn to code).
But I welcome our new robot overlords. In the longer term, the robots will save us from our shitty jobs. We are this close to solving the age-old issue of human labor. Forget slavery. Forget outsourcing. Robots. This isn’t really an unemployment issue, it’s a societal one.
We’ve been working longer and harder at jobs we hate, to buy stuff we don’t need, in order to impress people we don’t really care about. This is the central premise of our consumption-fueled economy. According to Deloitte’s Shift Index survey, 80 percent of Americans hate their job. What then are we really working towards? Yet this is the end product of a capitalist machine built on infinite growth, an idea that’s conceptually impossible to keep up with and one that breeds not only increasing social inequality but also unstoppable climate change.
This isn’t just a first world problem. In China, fresh college grads would rather tough out unemployment than sit around making iPads all day, even as factory wages have tripled in the last decade. If those are the only jobs available, China’s youth have concluded that they’d rather not work.
There is a school of thought that all of this automation will usher in an age of abundance. From that perspective, it’s a good thing that robots are taking over jobs no one wants to truly do. Ideally, this allows humans to focus on things we’re good at, like solving problems and building things.
Unfortunately, any of this would require a complete rethink of our system, which only means getting to this post-jobs utopia will take longer than anyone would like. But it’s not totally crazy nor impossible. It’s also something economists have been thinking about for a while: for instance, a negative taxation system. Last year in Switzerland, the idea of a universal living began gaining steam. In other words, robots might not just kill jobs, they could ultimately destroy capitalism.
At the very least, they’re forcing us to ask some awkward questions. Like where will the jobs come from and what if they never do? Because the robots have already arrived; we might as well enjoy it. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to dust off those programming books.
Top image via PSA Peugeot Citroen