Robots need to move faster to save the world

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Robots need to move faster to save the world

Not long ago, authors were churning out awful books on how “the rise of robots” would lead to “the future of unemployment” amid official predictions that half of all jobs in the United States would be at risk from automation, from now on.

Recent employment reports, however, reveal a different threat: not whether robots will replace human labor, but whether they will get here fast enough to save the world economy from a shortage of workers.

World unemployment is at 4.5%, the lowest since global records began in 1980. Labor shortages are at historic levels in advanced economies, including the UK and the US. There are now 11.2 million openings for 5.6 million job seekers in the US, the biggest gap since the 1950s. Millions of workers who quit during the pandemic have yet to return, adding to the desperation of bosses.

These pressures are boiling today in large part because the growth of the working-age population – people between the ages of 15 and 64 – has started to slow, while the proportion of the elderly increases. Accelerated aging is, in turn, a delayed result of social changes that began decades earlier: women have fewer children and science increases average life expectancy.

The working-age population is declining in nearly 40 countries, including most major economic powers, up from just two in the early 1980s. The US is falling less precipitously than most, but it is in the same basic situation. More than any other factor, fewer workers ensure slower economic growth, so most countries will need more robots just to keep growth alive.

The technopessimists are still sounding the alarm, saying the specter of robots stealing jobs and slashing wages will re-emerge as the pandemic fades and layoffs return to work, which may or may not. Either way, underlying demographic trends predict continued scarcity.

Among the hardest-hit countries are China, Japan, Germany and South Korea — all of which are expected to see the working-age population drop by at least 400,000 a year by 2030. Not coincidentally, these countries are already home to high concentrations of robots and are producing more. . Japan’s factories use nearly 400 robots per 10,000 workers, up from 300 just four years ago.

China, in its own top-down way, is heavily subsidizing robot makers, aiming to increase their output by 20% a year by 2030. Even at this rate, analysts at Bernstein predict, robots cannot fill all the gaps. vacancies in the workforce, which China expects to reduce to 35 million workers over the next three years.

Governments can respond to labor shortages in other ways—paying parents bonuses for having more children, encouraging women to enter or return to the workforce, welcoming immigrants or raising the retirement age. But all these steps trigger human resistance, especially in an angry populist era.

Robots provoke a different reaction, a vague fear of machines and artificial intelligence that takes shape mostly in books, rarely in protest at job theft. Meanwhile, the robots silently arrive at the loading dock, unchallenged.

Like previous innovations, robots kill some professions and create others. The gasoline engine made the horse-drawn buggy driver obsolete, but it spawned the taxi driver. About a third of the jobs created in the US are in fields that didn’t exist or barely existed 25 years ago. And a third “will change fundamentally over the next 15 to 20 years,” according to the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). Technology brings disruption, not destruction followed by nothing – as the “future of unemployment” implies.

Each robot can replace three or more factory workers, the group hardest hit. But the degree of disruption depends on the pace of change, often exaggerated. Analysts had been predicting since the 1950s that full AI would arrive in 20 years, but it hasn’t yet. Dreadful warnings that self-driving vehicles would wipe out one of the most common jobs in the United States — a truck driver — have given way to a shortage of truck drivers.

Now, recession looms, but unemployment is unlikely to rise as much as in previous crises, again due to the shrinking workforce. Fewer workers will leave the job market tighter than usual throughout the business cycle, even as robots continue to multiply.

They are arriving on time. Due to an unexpectedly sharp drop in birth rates, the UN recently raised its forecast for the pace of population decline from the US to China. It takes years for births to affect the workforce, but smart governments will act now, attracting more women, immigrants, the elderly and – yes – robots into the workforce. The other option is fewer workers, automated or not, and a future without growth.

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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