Charles De Gaulle once cruelly joked that Brazil was “the country of the future – and always will be”. It’s tempting to conclude, as we are besieged by another round of prophecies of how technological advancement is going to result in mass unemployment, in a similarly world-weary fashion: robots are the future of work – and always will be.
Working people have been alarmed about the job-destroying potential of machines ever since 19th-century French craftsmen threw their sabots (clogs) into mechanised textile loom – thus giving birth, some say, to the term “sabotage”. And it feels like the intellectual classes have been fretting about the social implications of the rise of the robots for almost as long.
Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel in 1952, The Piano Player, portrayed a dystopian future of workers replaced by machines. Twelve years later the British Nobel laureate economist James Meade warned of a “Brave New Capitalists’ Paradise” where all the decent-paying middle class jobs had been automated. “We would be back in a new super-world of an immiserised proletariat of butlers, footmen, kitchen maids and other hangers on,” he warned.
And yet where are we today? In the UK the (human) employment rate is at a record high of 73.7 per cent. Research from the Bank of England last week suggested some 15 million British jobs (out of a total today of 31 million) are at risk of automation in the coming decades. But how, precisely, are we going to get there? Before the Bank started fretting about the rise of the robots its economic analysis implied that too many big companies have been gorging on cheap labour and neglecting to invest in labour-saving technologies. The previous panic over Britain’s productivity gap has, bizarrely, given way to fears of a robot-driven productivity surge. There are yawning skills shortages in sectors such as nursing and construction. Shouldn’t we focus on those human jobs that need filling today, rather than obsessing about robots?
The prophets of job market robogeddon point to Google’s self-driving car and 3D printers as examples of how the automation revolution is already unfolding around us. But there’s not much evidence in the statistics that suggests machines are replacing people. True, unemployment remains painfully high in the eurozone. The job market participation rate in the US has fallen rather alarmingly. But these are very likely to be symptoms of deficient aggregate spending brought on by misguided fiscal austerity. Unless one wants to make the argument that the robo-revolution kicked in, by some amazing coincidence, at the same time as the global financial crisis struck.
Another Nobel economics laureate, Robert Solow, quipped in 1987 that “you can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics”. You can pretty much update that by swapping the robot for the computer.
But let’s not get too cavalier. Just because the technology soothsayers were wrong in the past about the degree to which robots will crowd out human labour, it doesn’t mean they will be wrong in the future. As Martin Ford, author of The Rise of the Robots, points out “this time is always different where technology is concerned”. And while employment in the UK is buoyant there does seem to have been a hollowing out of the workforce, with a proliferation of both high-paid, high-skilled jobs and low-paid, relatively menial ones. It's possible that automation has played a role in creating this trend.
It behoves us, though, to be exact in our analysis. The whole point of any kind of automation is that it does displace human labour. Otherwise, what would be the point? Previous waves of automation – such as those water-driven textile looms of the industrial revolution – did make redundant the old craftsmen, just as the saboteurs and the Luddites feared.
But the owners of the factories profited as a result of automation. And the people who manned the factories had higher incomes than they’d have had if they’d remained farming the fields and enjoyed lower prices of manufactured products. They all invested and spent this money, creating fresh demand. New jobs were created in cities, meaning that overall employment rose. Jobs were lost, but new types of jobs were created in even greater numbers. And thus the ratchet of our prosperity turned. The specific fear is not that robots will take jobs, but that the economy – for the first time since the dawn of the automated loom – will fail to produce enough new types of jobs to offset those that are lost.
Yet the issue here is not so much automation but the distribution of its fruits. If automation means we can produce the same level of output for fewer hours that could, in theory, be a tremendous fillip to our standards of living. We could spend more time with our children and loved ones, rather than slaving in offices, shops and factories. It would mean a smaller proportion of our lives would be consumed in commuting to work. We could enjoy the 15 hour working week that John Maynard Keynes outlined in his 1930 pamphlet Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Automation could finally solve what Keynes described as mankind’s “economic problem” of having to toil for subsistence.
Again, we shouldn’t be Panglossian. It’s well-established that work gives an individual a sense of purpose. Unemployment and underemployment today are indeed a scourge, a waste of resources and a source of deep unhappiness. Yet this may be due to social attitudes towards unemployment and the degree to which a lack of money inhibits full participation in society, rather than an inherent human desire for eight-hour working days.
Andrew Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, talks of sharing the “robotic rents” (profits) by more worker co-ownership of firms. That could also be done on a national level, too, through a generous guaranteed basic income for all citizens, something advocated by Ford in his book.
In truth we have been sharing the rents of technological leaps, on a community level, ever since the industrial revolution. The key is to ensure that continues. Technology is not the enemy. The enemy is inequality.
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