Donald Trump is wrong. These four words can generally apply to anything the Angry Orange man in the White House opines on but he is especially, egregiously and dangerously wrong on jobs.
Neither China, nor Mexico, are the sole cause of the decline in the job prospects of middle American white man. Automation is the real job killer. Rather like the Luddites Donald is raging against forces that have been unstoppable for all of human history. But at least he is, in his own inchoate way, generating a debate on the future of work. In Ireland we see, as per, precious little.Automation, combined with artificial intelligence, is causing a massive upheavel in the labour market. This upheaval will not be confined simply to the middle-class Western world however. The World Bank has estimated that massive numbers of jobs in developing countries, 70 to 80%, may also be in the firing line of our new robot overlords. If this is the case, then we will find that the traditional past to development of countries such as Ethiopia and Myanmar may well be chopped off. In the United States, recent estimates suggest that to 85 percent of jobs lost over the last decade can be attributed to technological change, to automation. On the potential for loss jobs from automation , research from McKinsey suggests that upwards of 40% of the United States workers should fear for their positions. And with each advance in robotics the robots advance to jobs and employment and indeed activities previously on thought of.
Stop throughout history as technology has advanced persons whose employment was predicated on previous levels of technology have found themselves having to adapt or, in employment terms, die. Thus we have fewer people working In agriculture than ever before, and yet agriculture is, through technology, Massively productive. The advent of automated streetlighting abolished the role of lamplighter ; there are few if any commercially employed Telegraph key operators; who now can make a living as a wheelwright? A key point is often overlooked and hysteria around automation is that historically the advance of automation has created massive Wealth, and has in the end resulted in the creation of more jobs than where lost in the process of disruption. This is of scant comfort to those jobs were lost in the process of disruption. But historically, when jobs were lost, these were jobs lost by people who did not matter, politically. For the first time in human history we are seeing massive dislocation in employment combined with the mass engagement of the population. Populist movements, mass democracy(no matter how flawed), and political systems which rely on keeping populations quiet through increased wealth, it is not clear how they will cope with the possible impoverishment of large swathes of the population on whom they rest, and from where their legitimacy ultimately emanates.
As automation and artificial intelligence grows so too will the range of Jobs which are more profitably employed using human operators. Over last couple of decades we have become used tomorrow and more computerisation and automation in service industries, with a self-service checkouts, self-service banking, and whole range of automated processes in relation to the purchase and renewal of quotidian services. What is now happening is that areas heretofore seen as being human bastions such as journalism, the arts, teaching, even some personal services, these are all being disrupted by automation and artificial intelligence. The share of national income taken by Labour has been falling in the G 20 countries for the last 30 years. Over that period it has fallen by between 15% and 5%. At the same time of the productivity of labour has risen, by similar magnitudes. There is very little evidence that this decline is down to globalisation. While globalisation may have shifted some lower paid jobs from the west to the east, at the same time automation is rendering these very jobs, and those which remain in the West, obsolete. Aided by technology, workers are producing much more but are receiving much less indefinitely. This is not a trend that can continue indefinitely.
It is impossible to turn back the clock, and it is equally impossible to recover those jobs which are, which will be, lost to automation. The challenge for political economy into 21st-century Will be to create political and economic structures which share the vastly increasing wealth, and which creates educational and social structures that free that most remarkable of things, The human brain, to achieve its individual and collective destiny.
Irish examiner column 20 Feb 201