01.03.2022 Finance Tech Trends

The march of the robots

At the start of the pandemic, some predicted that the rapid rise of robotization would spur chronic unemployment. How come that didn’t happen?

Article by Daniele Antonucci, Chief Economist at Quintet Private Bank

Robots, generally speaking, are hard to love. While there are exceptions to that rule – think of charming fictional characters such as R2-D2 or Wall-E – we typically recoil from real-world robots because they lack human qualities. They are, quite literally, cold to the touch.

Like technological disruption more generally, including process automation, robots fascinate economists for a host of reasons, most of all due to their impact on employment. In that regard, the key question is whether robots help or harm workers. That is of particular salience in this historical moment, as we consider the pandemic’s impact on employment and try to imagine the post-Covid workforce.

There is a gloomy narrative, which says robots destroy jobs, that has captured the popular imagination for decades. Such concerns may sometimes be wildly exaggerated, but they are not unfounded.

A recent McKinsey study suggests that, over the coming decade, some 800 million workers across the globe will have lost their jobs due to automation. Another study, by a pair of MIT and Boston University professors, found that “for every robot added per 1,000 workers in the US, wages decline by 0.42% and the employment-to-population ratio goes down by 0.2 percentage points — to date, this means the loss of about 400,000 jobs.”

When robots come to your workplace and you see a colleague lose their job, that’s a tangible shock. But it is simply not the full story.

Two years ago, just prior to the start of the pandemic, the world was in the midst of an unprecedented artificial-intelligence and machine-learning revolution. Simultaneously, unemployment rates across advanced economies had risen to all-time highs. Japan and South Korea, where robot use was among the highest worldwide, happened to have the lowest rates of unemployment. Germany, too, had a high degree of factory automation and also low levels of joblessness.

Then Covid struck and unemployment soared. Not since the Great Depression had American joblessness surpassed 14%, as it did in April 2020. Some thought the pandemic would at last prove the doomsayers right, dramatically accelerating the trend towards automation – especially since robots don’t fall ill or spread disease – and spurring chronic unemployment. For the Cassandras, many jobs lost during the pandemic would never come back.

However, such predictions of a prolonged period of very high joblessness simply didn’t materialize. Today, the unemployment rate in the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, is more or less back to where it was prior to the start of the pandemic. At the same time, the labor-market rebound and accompanying wage pressure – mostly just in the US and the UK so far, and not yet in continental Europe – appear to have further fueled automation. That includes robotization, which is now more widespread than ever.

Yet evidence of automation-induced unemployment is scant, even as global investment is skyrocketing. The rich world faces a shortage of workers, which is hard to reconcile with the idea that people are no longer necessary. Wage growth for low-skilled workers, whose occupations are generally thought to be most vulnerable to replacement by robots, has been unusually fast.

What’s going on here?

The answer is that new technology will inevitably destroy some existing jobs. But it will also help create new ones, including by driving productivity, lowering costs, supporting increased demand and spurring job creation. The historical record is crystal clear in this regard: When overall productivity grows, so does overall employment.

At this unique historical moment, as the world staggers out of lockdown and into the sunlight, the age-old cycle of innovation, job destruction and job creation continues. Robots will likewise march on, replacing some workers and simultaneously supporting the rise of entirely new roles.