Read that last sentence again: we’re confident that between two and three million Americans who drive vehicles for a living will lose their jobs in the next fifteen years. Self-driving cars are the most obvious job-destroying technology, but there are similar innovations ahead that will dislocate cashiers, fast food workers, customer service representatives, groundskeepers, and many many others in a few short years. How many of these people will be readily employable elsewhere?
Okay, you’re thinking. But isn’t this all still in the somewhat distant future, since unemployment is only 4.6% according to the headlines? Actually, automation has already eliminated about four million manufacturing jobs in the US since 2000. And instead of finding new jobs, a lot of those people left the workforce and didn’t come back. The US labor force plummeted by about 10 million during the same period, down to levels not seen in decades. The labor participation rate is now at only 62.7%, a rate right below El Salvador and right above the Ukraine:
Sources: Karl Polanyi, 1944. The Great Transformation.; Fred Block and Margaret Somers, 2003. In the Shadow of Speenhamland: Social Policy and the Old Poor Law.
Late 18th century Southern England was having a hard time of it. Rural labourers were losing access to land to support themselves because of enclosures. Cottage craft industries were losing ground to manufactured goods from the North. And grain prices spiked due to the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1795, authorities introduced the Speenhamland Law to help workers cope with all this, implemented at the parish level. Some parishes provided a basic income, with a 100% clawback. Others provided workfare, unemployment insurance, and other variations. Support was geared to the price of wheat, going up and down with wheat or bread prices. It went on until 1834, then was replaced with the workhouse – an institution that separated families and gave them make-work projects for their survival.
This paper: Arntz, M., T. Gregory and U. Zierahn (2016), “The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A Comparative Analysis”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 189, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5jlz9h56dvq7-en
Frey and Osborne published a paper in 2013 estimating that 47% of American jobs could be lost to automation in the next ten to twenty years. This paper is in response to that. These authors argue that it’s better to analyze jobs by tasks, rather than entire jobs, and that with most jobs, only some of the job can be automated. Their calculations indicate that only 9% of jobs are at risk, rather than 47%.
According to FO [Frey and Osborne], people working in the occupation “Retail Salesperson” (SOC code 41-2031) face an automation potential of 92%. Despite this, only 4% of retail salespersons perform their jobs with neither both group work nor face-to-face interactions.
You may already see the problem. They assume that jobs will remain when some job tasks (group work and face-to-face interactions) can’t be automated: that those un-automatable tasks are essential to the job. For example, shopping in person involves the salesperson doing a lot of things that robots can’t do. However, anyone who has shopped online knows that at least some of the time, those things don’t matter that much – you can read the reviews online to get equivalent service. (It depends on what you’re buying, of course.) For many jobs, there are tasks that robots won’t be able to do, but those tasks aren’t necessarily going to matter, either to consumers, or to employers who automate the jobs regardless of what consumers want.
So I suspect that their estimate of 9% of jobs lost to automation is an underestimate.
Regardless, in my opinion, we need a basic income now. We already have far too much precarious employment. I’m not sure what is going to happen in the future really matters.
Two researchers from the Mowat Centre in Toronto have published a report on the future of Canada’s safety net, given current and likely future changes to the job market.
Sunil Johan and Jordann Thirgood: Working Without a Net: Rethinking Canada’s social policy in the new age of work.
webpage, pdf of actual report
(This is the report I linked to in the previous blog post.)
This report explores the implications of new technologies on Canada’s economy and labour market and the adequacy of current social programs and policies supporting workers. It proposes key considerations policymakers need to keep in mind as the nature of jobs evolves to ensure that they are designing policies that lead, and don’t lag, rapid changes to the nature of work.
There’s an article on the CBC website today discussing the relationship between automation and the job market, including an interview with Sunil Johal, coauthor of a report posted on November 22 of this year. The issue is that automation may replace a lot of jobs. Other jobs will emerge, and there are some jobs automation is not able to do. On the other hand, the new jobs may not pay as well or as steadily (something that’s been going on for a while, from what I can see).
This is another video from the conference in Switzerland last spring. It features two labor organizers, Andrew Stern from the US (I loved his talk) and Vania Alleva from Switzerland (she speaks in German from about 17 to 23:45 minutes – I think she prefers minimum wage to basic income), and Nell Abernathy and Dorian Warren from the Roosevelt Institute in the US. I think the speakers I understood all brought up a lot of good points worth thinking about. The video is 56 minutes long, but unless you understand German you can skip about 7 minutes in the first half, and sections of the Q&A (36:30-38:37; 44:15-45:15).
Anthony Painter is Director of the Action and Research Centre at the Royal Society of Arts in the UK. He makes a good case for basic income, then advocates introducing it incrementally. This is another talk at the basic income conference in Switzerland last spring. It’s only 18 minutes including Q&A.
Robert B. Reich is professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. He was Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997. I think this talk was to promote BI in Switzerland before their vote on it last summer. He talks for about 20 minutes then takes questions. Among other things, he talks about how people want to work and a BI would free them up do to the kind of work they want. In the Q&A he suggests reducing business subsidies to help fund BI. I LIKE THAT IDEA!
If you like these videos, please go to Youtube and give them a thumbs up. They are not getting nearly enough views.