The UK Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has presented a somewhat dour report on the UK's future - Brexit and demographic concerns are naturally highlighted, but then 15 million jobs will apparently be lost from automation. It was a number bandied about by the Central Banker, Mark Carney a couple of weeks ago.
Did any of the writers take economics?
Automation and robotic technologies will always displace jobs, particularly menial jobs that robotics can emulate. But who will be designing the machines, who will be repairing them, who will be distributing them? A doomsayer could reply - robots, you idiot. Sure...but if people are displaced from a certain type of work doesn't mean that they'll be out of work forever.
As robots replace people in a specific field, say, they will enter other job markets, freeing up human talent to be used elsewhere. Naturally, the interventionist leaning think tank notes that "politicians would have to shape who benefits from the changes and who loses out..." Seriously? Those are the guys who create economic messes in the name of politics: memo - don't trust that statement. Forty years ago, politicians were in no fit state to predict what kind of industries and services would evolve in the market: mobile phones, laptops, tablets, software writers, web designers, Facebook, Google, Instagram...we could go on and on. In fact, no one knew - even the entrepreneurs, because what they struggle with is not competition but the future, which, in case we've not grasped this one yet, is unknowable.
The argument that advances in technology have a long history and have always proved wrong. Hmm, that's less of a prediction than an attack on the underlying lack of economics used. Technology increases people's productivity - the fact that I can run a digital magazine from my home and reach out to the world is a reflection of that: I do not need to employ a printing firm or global distribution company, or even an office full of techies. Amazing. Increased productivity per person always increases the real return on employment services rendered: wages will rise as they have done on the back of every technological advance from the spinning jenny and seed drill to the steam train and the computer.
In turn that may mean we work less. People on average work fewer hours too than they did a hundred years ago; so we may choose to put more of our human energy into leisurely pursuits (thereby creating employment opportunities there too).
Technology frees us from the chores: the dishwasher and washing machine take out the pain of hand washing dishes and clothes; my sat nav facilitates driving to new destinations; my iPod means I can listen to famous authors while I'm on the go (rather than employ someone to read a book outlaid while I drive or potter around the house); I can buy a robotic lawnmower from John Deere that can permit me more time to spend with my family.
While specific predictions are often hit and miss, economic theory and the evidence of the past both underline how beneficial technology is - how it improves living standards and real wages.
But for the individual, it can prove painful. The pot washer in the local restaurant may literally become redundant ... but only if the price of the robotic capital is cheaper than the available student labour, and that is not always the case of course. I recall getting excited about seeing a concrete mixer that could pump fresh concrete up two floors - I expressed this to a Chinese student of mine at the time; he was quite entrepreneurial and we played with the idea of his importing the technology until my economics brain kicked back in: the cost of such technology versus hiring a corps of Chinese workers with wheelbarrows and pulleys. The former quickly became prohibitive.
Going back to our pot washer or similarly displaced person: the key thing for each of us to continue learning and adapting. The pot washer may have to learn to wait on tables or serve people in other ways; the people who lost typing pool jobs may have gone into customer relations or set up their own printing businesses - who knows? But there may be a market for people who want to get away from technology - where I currently live, the pace of life is slower, the culture is less infested with technology - people pour tea in tea shops, and the market reflects that need: there are loads of tea shops.
High human service costs do encourage us to buy capital when we can, but there will always be old roles and new roles for the technologically displaced unemployed. Our imagination may help imagine what, but - here is a prediction - we'll probably still be very surprised as the years unfurl. (Image: John Deere robot mower - great to watch in action!)
IMAGE- from http://www.robotshop.com/blog/en/all-sciences-lead-to-robotics-9752. Fascinating site to look around!