February 19, 2013


A Cheerful Welcome To The Robots, Our Future Work Overlords (Scott Winship, 2/18/13, Forbes)

Even if growth rates never return to their glory days, we are on the verge of realizing absolute annual gains that will be permanently larger than in the Golden Age. How those gains are distributed is an important consideration, but the situation is less dire than many believe. Median income has risen by at least one-third since 1979, and the evidence that the labor market is polarizing has been, in the words of Urban Institute and Georgetown economist Harry Holzer, "overblown."

The second blind spot among the neo-Luddites is their failure to consider the gains we will receive as consumers from technological advances even as they misunderstand the reduced demand for labor technology may create. Technology makes us more productive--it allows us to produce the same stuff, but more cheaply. Too many people hear "producing the same stuff more cheaply" as "producing the same stuff with fewer workers" and see mass unemployment as our fate. Rising productivity actually means "producing the same stuff with fewer hours worked." That can be achieved by having fewer workers do the same amount of work, but it is also consistent with the same number of workers all scaling back their hours.

It hardly seems worth arguing that most Americans would work less per week and for less of their lifetimes if they could. One hundred years ago essentially all men in their early 60s worked; today just six in ten do, and the typical retirement age has steadily declined (while life expectancy has increased). During their working years, men now have more leisure time than in the past. Work has increased markedly for women, but consistent with their rising education levels, longer delays in marriage and childbearing, and reduced fertility, this is mainly reflective of greater opportunities to balance work and family. Unpaid time doing housework has declined more among women than work has increased, meaning that they too have more leisure time than in the past.

Of course, people will only choose to work less if they can afford to. But technological advance will radically increase productivity--reducing demand for labor--only insofar as it also radically reduces the prices of what we buy. Ignoring this connection leads to absurd fears about the future. 

...that your biggest economic worry is that you'll have to work less to enjoy a higher standard of living in the future.

Posted by at February 19, 2013 7:14 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus