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PAINFUL TRUTH: Unemployment and robots

Demographics and a changing economy have flipped how we view automation
A worker checks on robot arms at a factory in Nanjing in east China’s Jiangsu province, Thursday, June 6, 2019. (Chinatopix via AP)

For the past decade, there has been a low-key fear among some public policy experts that a wave of automation would put people out of work faster than new jobs could be created.

This sounded pretty plausible to me, especially back in the early 2010s.

Back then, we were seemingly on the verge of a robot car revolution, which could have not only transformed personal transport, but thrown tens of thousands of truck and bus and delivery drivers out of work.

It didn’t seem that far fetched to see other technologies, like robots in Amazon warehouses and factories, taking similar leaps forward, throwing more people out of work. Even jobs in medicine, financial services, retail and (gulp!) journalism were potentially threatened by new artificial intelligence software.

Some of those miraculous technological advances didn’t quite come to pass. Self-driving cars sprinted through 95 metres of a 100 metre dash, only to fall flat on their faces just before the finish line, stymied by the last few tough technological challenges of navigating roads with construction zones, snow, and pedestrians.

The story was similar in other areas – software and automation did become a bigger part of everything from warehousing to journalism, but not fast enough to outpace the need for more workers.

What we’re seeing right now is the exact opposite of the potential doomsday scenario of a decade ago. Instead of workers collecting unemployment, employers are desperate for more truck drivers, warehouse staff, office workers, tech workers – and they can’t find nearly enough of them!

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Well, I was wrong, not for the first time, nor the last time.

What appears to have happened isn’t just that technology didn’t advance as fast as expected (although that’s part of it).

The other side of the equation is that there are just fewer workers.

A small fraction have died of COVID-19 during the pandemic. A larger fraction now suffers from long COVID.

But the biggest change has simply been that more people are retiring than are entering the work force. The pandemic accelerated this shift – if you were already in your 60s, and vulnerable to a nasty new airborne virus, the choice between working for another year or two, or retiring right away became a lot easier.

With Baby Boomers stepping away from work, and fewer Millennials and Zoomers around to replace them, the job market is going to be tighter for a generation, at least.

Which mean that automation, which was once considered a potential threat to jobs, becomes even more attractive to employers Now it’s not about potentially cutting costs and reducing payroll, it’s about getting more out of the few employees you can hire!

Maybe we will, eventually, get some of those big AI-driven breakthroughs. But it will be driven more by desperation in a worker-scarce environment. Which is a lot better than we expected.

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Matthew Claxton

About the Author: Matthew Claxton

Raised in Langley, as a journalist today I focus on local politics, crime and homelessness.
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