October 7, 2014


Wealth without workers, workers without wealth : The digital revolution is bringing sweeping change to labour markets in both rich and poor worlds (The Economist, Oct 4th 2014)

In the coming years the disruption will be felt by more people in more places, for three reasons. First, the rise of machine intelligence means more workers will see their jobs threatened. The effects will be felt further up the skill ladder, as auditors, radiologists and researchers of all sorts begin competing with machines. Technology will enable some doctors or professors to be much more productive, leaving others redundant.

Second, wealth creation in the digital era has so far generated little employment. Entrepreneurs can turn their ideas into firms with huge valuations and hardly any staff. Oculus VR, a maker of virtual-reality headsets with 75 employees, was bought by Facebook earlier this year for $2 billion. With fewer than 50,000 workers each, the giants of the modern tech economy such as Google and Facebook are a small fraction of the size of the 20th century's industrial behemoths.

Third, these shifts are now evident in emerging economies. Foxconn, long the symbol of China's manufacturing economy, at one point employed 1.5m workers to assemble electronics for Western markets. Now, as the costs of labour rise and those of automated manufacturing fall, Foxconn is swapping workers for robots. China's future is more Alibaba than assembly line: the e-commerce company that recently made a spectacular debut on the New York Stock Exchange employs only 20,000 people.

The digital transformation seems to be undermining poor countries' traditional route to catch-up growth. Moving the barely literate masses from fields to factories has become harder. If India, for instance, were to follow China's development path, it would need skilled engineers and managers to build factories to employ millions of manufacturing workers. But, thanks to technological change, its educated elite is now earning high salaries selling IT services to foreigners. The digital revolution has made an industrial one uneconomic.

None of this means that the digital revolution is bad for humanity. Far from it. This newspaper believes firmly that technology is, by and large, an engine of progress. IT has transformed the lives of billions for the better, often in ways that standard income measures do not capture. Communication, knowledge and entertainment have become all but free. Few workers would want to go back to a world without the internet, the smartphone or Facebook, even for a pay increase. 

It's a wealth redistribution question, not a jobs problem.

Posted by at October 7, 2014 5:30 PM

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