What if robots aren’t taking our jobs?

Some time ago—I forget where—I read the observation that, with productivity growth being persistently low across the developed world, robots are actually taking jobs more slowly than ever before. Exactly why this is so is a debate amongst economists, summarised in a Conversation article back in April 2021, and I don’t intend to buy into that debate here. The relevant point for this blog is: what if robots really aren’t taking our jobs, leaving us to do them indefinitely into the future? Will the science fiction future ever come?

First, note that productivity growth hasn’t stopped; it’s merely slowed, meaning that robots continue to take jobs but not at the rate suggested by the technology-is-advancing-faster-then-ever narrative that appears in so much commentary. So perhaps the only upshot of all this is that whatever utopia or dystopia lies at the end of productivity gains is further away than we might have thought from twentieth-century rates of productivity growth.

One comment on Anthony Veal’s recent article on four-day weeks makes the point that, given that the productivity of developed economies is already vastly greater than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, is increasing it even further a very pressing issue anyway? In this view, residents of the developed world already have plenty of goods and leisure (or at least could do, if they chose to spend their productivity this way), leaving them with nothing much to worry about in this regard.

A mainstream politician or economist would probably say something about improving living standards and/or “growing the pie”, meaning having more goods and services available to everyone. Putting aside the debate over whether the developed world has enough goods and services already, the political appeal of growing the pie is that it allows any a group to aspire to more goods and services without having to shift them from somewhere else. If productivity growth really does stop, an increase in the (material) wealth of one group would come at the expense of some other group.

My experience of the past two years suggests that continuing to work three or four days a week, should such a thing be necessary, would not be too bad an outcome; I might even appreciate occasional guidance on what might be a useful thing to do. I could even forego some of my wealth if it were necessary for someone else to get into the same position. But a lot remains to be explained as to why productivity growth has slowed, whether and how it might restart, and how long it might take for robots take our jobs when it does.

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