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Posts Tagged ‘technological change’

The rise of the machines

What will production look like in 20 years time? Will familiar jobs in both manufacturing and the services be taken over by robots? And if so, which ones? What will be the effect on wages and on unemployment? Will most people be better off, or will just a few gain while others get by with minimum-wage jobs or no jobs at all?

The BBC has been running a series looking at new uses for robots and whether they will take people’s jobs? This complements three reports: one by Boston Consulting one by Deloitte and an earlier one by Deloitte and Michael Osborne and Carl Frey from Oxford University’s Martin School. As Jane Wakefield, the BBC’s technology reporter states:

Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025, up to a quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots, while a study from Oxford University has suggested that 35% of existing UK jobs are at risk of automation in the next 20 years.

Jobs at threat from machines include factory work, office work, work in the leisure sector, work in medicine, law, education and other professions, train drivers and even taxi and lorry drivers. At present, in many of these jobs machines work alongside humans. For example, robots on production lines are common, and robots help doctors perform surgery and provide other back-up services in medicine.

A robot may not yet have a good bedside manner but it is pretty good at wading through huge reams of data to find possible treatments for diseases.

Even if robots don’t take over all jobs in these fields, they are likely to replace an increasing proportion of many of these jobs, leaving humans to concentrate on the areas that require judgement, creativity, human empathy and finesse.

These developments raise a number of questions. If robots have a higher marginal revenue product/marginal cost ratio than humans, will employers choose to replace humans by robots, wholly or in part? How are investment costs factored into the decision? And what about industrial relations? Will employers risk disputes with employees? Will they simply be concerned with maximising profit or will they take wider social concerns into account?

Then there is the question of what new jobs would be created for those who lose their jobs to machines. According to the earlier Deloitte study, which focused on London, over 80% of companies in London say that over the next 10 years they will be most likely to take on people with skills in ‘digital know-how’, ‘management’ and ‘creativity’.

But even if new jobs are created through the extra spending power generated by the extra production – and this has been the pattern since the start of the industrial revolution some 250 years ago – will these new jobs be open largely to those with high levels of transferable skills? Will the result be an ever widening of the income gap between rich and poor? Or will there be plenty of new jobs throughout the economy in a wide variety of areas where humans are valued for the special qualities they bring? As the authors of the later Deloitte paper state:

The dominant trend is of contracting employment in agriculture and manufacturing being more than offset by rapid growth in the caring, creative, technology and business services sectors.

The issues of job replacement and job creation, and of the effects on income distribution and the balance between work and leisure, are considered in the following videos and articles, and in the three reports.

Videos
What is artificial intelligence? BBC News, Valery Eremenko (13/9/15)
What jobs will robots take over? BBC News, David Botti (15/8/14)
Could a robot do your job? BBC News, Rory Cellan-Jones (14/9/15)
Intelligent machines: The robots that work alongside humans BBC News, Rory Cellan-Jones (14/9/15)
Intelligent machines: Will you be replaced by a robot? BBC News, John Maguire (14/9/15)
Will our emotions change the way adverts work? BBC News, Dan Simmons (24/7/15)
Could A Robot Do My Job? BBC Panorama, Rohan Silva (14/9/15)

Articles
Technology has created more jobs in the last 144 years than it has destroyed, Deloitte study finds Independent, Doug Bolton (18/8/15)
Technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, says 140 years of data The Guardian, Katie Allen (18/8/15)
Will a robot take your job? BBC News (11/9/15)
Intelligent Machines: The jobs robots will steal first BBC News, Jane Wakefield (14/9/15)
Robots Could Take 35 Per Cent Of UK Jobs In The Next 20 Years Says New Study Huffington Post, Thomas Tamblyn (14/9/15)
The new white-collar fear: will robots take your job? The Telegraph, Rohan Silva (12/9/15)
Does technology destroy jobs? Data from 140 years says no Catch news, Sourjya Bhowmick (11/9/15)

Reports
Takeoff in Robotics Will Power the Next Productivity Surge in Manufacturing Boston Consulting Group (10/2/15)
Agiletown: the relentless march of technology and London’s response Deloitte (November 2014)
Technology and people: The great job-creating machine Deloitte, Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole (August 2015)

Questions

  1. Which are the fastest growing and fastest declining occupations? To what extent can these changes be explained by changes in technology?
  2. What type of unemployment is caused by rapid technological change?
  3. Why, if automation replaces jobs, have jobs increased over the past 250 years?
  4. In what occupations is artificial intelligence (AI) most likely to replace humans?
  5. To what extent are robots and humans complementary rather than substitute inputs into production?
  6. “Our analysis of more recent employment data also reveals a clear pattern to the way in which technology has affected work.” What is this pattern? Explain.
  7. Why might AI make work more interesting for workers?
  8. Using a diagram, show how an increase in workers’ marginal productivity from working alongside robots can result in an increase in employment. Is this necessarily the case? Explain.
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Getting out the crystal ball

The New Year is a time for reflection and prediction. What will the New Year bring? What does the longer-term future hold? Here are two articles from The Guardian that look into the future.

The first, by Larry Elliott, considers a number of scenarios and policy options. Although not totally doom laden, the article is not exactly cheery in its predictions. Perhaps ‘life will go on’ and the global economy will muddle through. But perhaps a new recession is around the corner or, even worse, the world is at a tipping point when things are fundamentally changing. Unless policy-makers are careful, clever and co-ordinated, perhaps a new dark age may be looming. But who knows?

Which brings us to the second article, by Gaby Hinsliff. This argues that people are pretty hopeless at predicting. “History is littered with supposed dead certs that didn’t happen – Greece leaving the euro, the premature collapse of the coalition – and wholly unimagined events that came to pass.” And economists and financial experts are little better.

Two years ago, The Observer challenged a panel of City investors to pick a portfolio of stocks and rated their performance against that of Orlando, a ginger cat who selected his portfolio by tossing a toy mouse at a sheet of paper. Inevitably, the cat triumphed.

But is this fair? If capital markets are relatively efficient, stock prices today already reflect knowable information about the future, but clearly not unknowable information.

It’s the same with economies. When information is already to hand, such as a pre-announced tax change, then its effects, ceteris paribus, can be estimated – at least roughly.

But it’s the ‘ceteris paribus‘ assumption that’s the problem. Other things are not equal. The world is constantly changing and there are all sorts of unpredictable events that will influence the outcomes of economic policy and of economic decisions more generally. And central to the problem are people’s attitudes and confidence. Mood can swing quite dramatically, from irrational exuberance to deep pessimism. And such mood changes – often triggered by some exogenous factor, such as an international dispute, an election or unexpected economic news – can rapidly gather momentum and have significant effects.

Predicting the long-term future is both easier and more difficult: easier, in that short-term cyclical effects are less relevant; more difficult in that changes that have not yet happened, such as technological changes or changes in working practices, may themselves be key determinants of the future global economy.

One of the most salutary lessons is to look at predictions made in the past about the world today and at just how wrong they have proved to be. Perhaps we need to call on Orlando more frequently.

Why ‘life will go on’ thesis about global economy might not pass muster in 2015 The Guardian, Larry Elliott (28/12/14)
Who knows what the new year holds? Certainly none of us The Guardian, Gaby Hinsliff (26/12/14)

Questions

  1. Give some examples of factors that could have a major influence on the global economy, but which are unpredictable.
  2. Is economic forecasting still worthwhile? Explain.
  3. Look at some macroeconomic forecasts made in the past about the world today. You might want to look at forecasts of agencies such as the IMF, the OECD, the World Bank and the European Commission. You can find links in the Economics Network’s Economic Data freely available online. Explain why such forecasts have differed from the actual outcome.
  4. Why, if capital markets were perfect, might Orlando be just as good as a top investment manager at predicting the future course of share prices?
  5. In what ways is economic forecasting similar to and different from weather forecasting in its methods, its use of data and its reliability?
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Job losses and labour mobility

Lloyds Banking Group has announced that it plans to reduce its labour force by 9000. Some of this reduction may be achieved by not replacing staff that leave, but some may have to be achieved through redundancies.

The reasons given for the reduction in jobs are technological change and changes in customer practice. More banking services are available online and customers are making more use of these services and less use of branch banking. Also, the increasingly widespread availability of cash machines (ATMs) means that fewer people withdraw cash from branches.

And it’s not just outside branches that technological change is impacting on bank jobs. Much of the work previously done by humans is now done by software programs.

One result is that many bank branches have closed. Lloyds says that the latest planned changes will see 150 fewer branches – 6.7% of its network of 2250.

What’s happening in banking is happening much more widely across modern economies. Online shopping is reducing the need for physical shops. Computers in offices are reducing the need, in many cases, for office staff. More sophisticated machines, often controlled by increasingly sophisticated computers, are replacing jobs in manufacturing.

So is this bad news for employees? It is if you are in one of those industries cutting employment. But new jobs are being created as the economy expands. So if you have a good set of skills and are willing to retrain and possibly move home, it might be relatively easy to find a new, albeit different, job.

As far as total unemployment is concerned, more rapid changes in technology create a rise in frictional and structural unemployment. This can be minimised, however, or even reduced, if there is greater labour mobility. This can be achieved by better training, education and the development of transferable skills in a more adaptive labour force, where people see changing jobs as a ‘normal’ part of a career.

Webcasts
Lloyds Bank cuts 9,000 jobs – but what of the tech future? Channel 4 News, Symeon Brown (28/10/14)
Lloyds Bank confirms 9,000 job losses and branch closures BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (28/10/14)

Article
Lloyds job cuts show the technology axe still swings for white collar workers The Guardian, Phillip Inman (28/10/14)

Reports
Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions Cabinet Office (July 2009)
Fair access to professional careers: a progress report Cabinet Office (30/5/12)

Questions

  1. Is a reduction in banking jobs inevitable? Explain.
  2. What could banks do to reduce the hardship to employees from a reduction in employment?
  3. What other industries are likely to see significant job losses resulting from technological progress?
  4. Distinguish between demand-deficient, real-wage, structural and frictional unemployment. Which of these are an example, or examples, of equilibrium unemployment?
  5. What policies could the government pursue to reduce (a) frictional unemployment; (b) structural unemployment?
  6. What types of industry are likely to see an increase in employment and in what areas of these industries?
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What the average consumer buys…

Inflation is measured as the percentage increase in the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) over the previous 12 months. The index is constructed from a basket of goods that is supposed to represent the buying habits of an average UK household. This basket is updated each year as tastes change and as technology moves forward. The basket contains approximately 700 items, with 180,000 individual prices collected each month.

As certain goods become more popular and trends change, the ONS have the responsibility of identifying these changes and updating the basket of goods. The CPI then looks at how the weighted average price of this basket of goods changes from one month to the next. As the CPI gives us the main measure of UK inflation, it is essential that the basket of goods used does represent current consumer demands. If the basket of goods used 20 years ago was still in place, we wouldn’t see thing like mobile phones and ipads being included. This is one sector that has seen significant growth in recent years and the basket of goods has been adapted in response. A new addition to the measure is e-books, which have seen a significant growth in popularity.

However, just as new products have been added to the CPI measure, other goods have been removed. In the most recent update, we’ve seen the removal of champagne and Freeview boxes from the basket of goods. With rapid changes in technological products, such as the ipad, kindle and e-books, products that were new additions only a few years ago are now old news, being replaced by the latest gadgets. Other changes to the basket of goods are less about reflecting consumer trends and more about making certain categories more representative, such as fruits and hot drinks.

So, can the changes in the basket of goods tell us anything about the impact of the recession on buying habits? One notable exclusion from the basket of goods is champagne sold in restaurants and bars. In an economic downturn, you’d expect luxury products to see a decline in consumption and the trend in champagne consumption certainly seems to support the theory. The trends suggest that consumers have instead switched to cheaper alternatives, with things like white rum bought from shops increasing.

Many people may look at the basket of goods and think that it doesn’t reflect what you buy in your average shop. But, the purpose of the CPI is to try to reflect the average consumer and the different items in the basket are given different weightings to give some indication of the amount spent on each good. The articles below look at the changes in the CPI basket of goods and what, if anything, we can take from it.

Inflation basket: E-books added by ONS BBC News (12/3/13)
Inflation basket – what does it say about you? Channel 4 News (12/3/13)
The fizz has fallen flat – champagne cut from inflation basket Independent, Martin Hickman (13/3/13)
E-books added to inflation basket, as champagne dropped The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (13/3/13)
UK inflation basket: e-books in, champagne out The Guardian, Marking King (13/3/13)
Champagne tipped out of inflation basket Financial Times, Hannah Kuchler (13/3/13)
Champagne out, ebooks in as inflation basket updated Reuters (13/3/13)

Questions

  1. What is inflation and why is it such an important variable?
  2. How is the CPI calculated? Is it different from the RPI?
  3. What impact has technological change had on the basket of goods used to calculate the CPI?
  4. Can you identify any other economic or business trends from the products that are in and out of the CPI basket of goods?
  5. Given the importance of technology and the speed of change, do you think the review of the basket of goods should become more or less frequent?
  6. Has the economic downturn had any effect on the basket of goods used to calculate the CPI?
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