This chart shows that manufacturing has become decoupled from employment and explains why people are predicting that half of US jobs could be done by computers. We are in for a period of considerable social dislocation.
As a society we’ve been through these sorts of changes before, most notably with agriculture which used to employ c100% of the population and now employs 2-3%. Every time so far there has been a difficult period during which politicians got excited and society changed, but ultimately new jobs emerged to fill the gap. The transitions weren’t easy, but they were ultimately completed successfully. Some people are arguing that this time round things are different, largely because the jobs are being destroyed faster than during previous transitions and that there won’t be enough time for new jobs to be created.
My thinking on this subject has a three strands:
- Whether you view this development as desirable or undesirable there is no stopping it. Technological progress will continue at pace and attempts to stop it by individual governments only succeed in forcing innovation overseas, and slowing innovation and hurting the economy locally. Witness what happened when Bush banned stem cell research in the US.
- The next twenty years will be a disruptive time in our society and there is a risk of continued high unemployment as whole industries become automated. Governments would be well advised to anticipate this by extending retraining and back-to-work programmes (and potentially adopting more redistributive taxation policies), but either way people will eventually find new productive things to do and the economy will re-adjust.
- After that adjustment the world will be a better place as more of us will be doing more interesting and rewarding jobs whilst the machines do more of the dull repetitive stuff.
In summary we are headed to a better place, probably much better, but getting there will be difficult and we would be well advised to accept that there is no choice but to embark on the journey and to prepare well.