Culture Clash: Robots Are Stealing Our Jobs! by Bill Gross, Janus Capital
Presented without comment except at the Milken Conference many did express similar concerns to Gross (although without the Wizard of Odds and other eccentric remarks…).
A respected reporter recently asked me what were a few important things I had learned from all this and all of that during the past decade and I surprised myself and perhaps him by answering that I now realized that younger generations – the Xers and Millenials – were far different generations from my own. “How so?” he asked. They are ephemerally connected as opposed to hardwired, I replied. They hold history less dear and appreciate freshly baked inclusiveness more; they are inclined to move on instead of settle and build, perhaps because employer loyalty has weakened as well; they are more temporary residents than architects. But they are the future.
The challenge for me as a Boomer, I said, was to understand this, yet not sacrifice my generation’s heritage that had made these evolving differences possible. This generation gap, I continued, was just that – a far distance from one side of a chasm to the other. And yet, I thought, (having concluded the interview) culturally we were much the same: making positive, sometimes obsessive contributions at work; loving our families, our pets. No chasm there to bridge. A common culture. But common cultures themselves morph and sometimes quickly so, producing substantial gaps from one figurative day to the next. Most humans who walked this Earth were alive inside a culture that was constant for centuries, yet now it seemed that technology was mutating standards like a cytoplast or perhaps at worst – a cancer cell. Who could say whether this new life form was positive or negative? Who could say that an older generation was any less an ideal than the succeeding one? My experience of the divide between Boomers and Xers is like that; I recognize that youth will be served, but not always for the better.
Yet, if I (you) understood that to be somewhat true, what should I (you) do differently? How to live a life – this Shakespearian brief candle? Should I listen to the beat of a bass drum instead of an ancient tom-tom? Would I dare dance to strange new music with a different step? “Forward” is my futile response. Forward – with difficult questions. John Denver expressed it succinctly, “If there’s an answer, it’s just that it’s just that way”.
Change propels economies as well as cultures, and sometimes before we are even aware of it. We listen to Trump and Bernie, then Cruz and Hillary as if one of them might be the mythical Wizard of Oz, guiding us down that yellow brick road to reinvigorate growth. They all try to emulate the Wizard of course. “Change you can believe in” was Obama’s mantra and then there was Clinton’s “I come from a city called Hope” and so on. Eisenhower was probably the last honest politician. “I like Ike” was his promise for the future, and I think many voters actually did – like Ike. But back then and certainly now, it was the economy that was changing, not politicians’ promises for a better future, and government policies usually took years to respond. If Thatcher and Reagan sparked a “revolution” of tax policy, it was a long lagged response to decades of growth constricting government policies. If the Great Recession exposed holes in those free market ideologies, then to my way of thinking, seven years of Obama have not yet addressed the cracks in our global financial system. Our economy has changed, but voters and their elected representatives don’t seem to know what’s really wrong. They shout: (1) build a wall, (2) balance the budget, (3) foot the bill for college, or (4) make free trade less free. “That will fix it” they discordantly proclaim, and after November’s election some unlucky soul may do one or more of the above in an effort to make things better. Similar battles are being fought everywhere. Brazil and Venezuela approaching depression’s edge; leftist and right-wing government elections in Euroland; Spain without a government; Brexit; China’s ever-changing five year plan; Japan’s obsessional quest for 2% inflation. “Fix it, fix it, restore our hope for a better future”, beats the world’s tom-tom. Or is it a bass drum? It’s loud, whichever generational beat you dance to.
But here’s the thing. No one in 2016 is really addressing the future as we are likely to experience it, and while that future has significant structural headwinds influenced by too much debt and an aging demographic, another heavy gust merits little attention on the political stump. I speak in this Outlook to information technology and the robotization of our future global economy. Virtually every industry in existence is likely to become less labor-intensive in future years as new technology is assimilated into existing business models. Transportation is a visible example as computer driven vehicles soon will displace many truckers and bus/taxi drivers. Millions of jobs will be lost over the next 10-15 years. But medicine, manufacturing and even service intensive jobs are at risk. Investment managers too! Not only blue collar but now white collar professionals are being threatened by technological change.
Our new age economy – especially that of developed nations with aging demographics – is gradually putting more and more people out of work.
Nobel Prize winning economist Michael Spence wrote in 2014 that “should the digital revolution continue…The structure of the modern economy and the role of work itself may need to be rethought.” The role of work? Sounds like code for fewer jobs to me. And if so, as author Andy Stern writes in Raising the Floor, a policymaker – a future President or Prime Minister – must recognize that existing government policies have “built a whole social infrastructure based on the concept of a job, and that concept does not work anymore.” In other words, if income goes to technological robots whatever the form, instead of human beings, our culture will change and if so policies must adapt to those changes. As visual proof of this structural change, look at Chart I showing U.S. employment/population ratios over the past several decades. See a trend there? 78% of the eligible workforce between 25 and 54 years old is now working as opposed to 82% at the peak in 2000. That seems small but it’s really huge. We’re talking 6 million fewer jobs. Do you think it’s because Millenials just like to live with their parents and play video games all day? I think not. Technology and robotization are changing the world for the better but those trends are not creating many quality jobs. Our new age economy – especially that of developed nations with aging demographics – is gradually putting more and more people out of work.
Chart I: Advance of the Robots, Retreat of Labor