I recently found myself talking about my favourite TV shows from my childhood. Smurfs aside, the most popular one for me (and I suppose for many other people from my generation) had to be Knight Rider. It was a story about a crime fighter (David Hasselhoff) and his a heavily modified, artificially intelligent Pontiac Firebird. ‘Kitt’ was a car that could drive itself, engage in thoughtful and articulate conversations, carry out missions and (of course) come up with solutions to complex problems! A car that was very far from what was technologically possible in the 80s – and this was part of its charm.
Today this technology is becoming reality. Google, Tesla and most major automakers are testing self-driving cars with many advanced features like Kitt’s – if not better. They may not fire rockets, but they can drive themselves; they can search the internet; they can answer questions in a language of your choice; and they can be potentially integrated with a number of other technologies (such as car sharing apps) to revolutionise the way we own and use our cars. It will take years until we are able to purchase and use a self-driving car – but it appears very likely that this technology is going to become roadworthy within our lifetime.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is already becoming part of our life. You can buy a robotic vacuum cleaner online for less than a £1000. You can get gadgets like Amazon’s Alexa, that can help you automate your supermarket shopping, for instance. If you are Saudi, you can boast that you are compatriots with a humanoid: Saudi Arabia was the first country to grant citizenship to Sophia, an impressive humanoid and apparently a notorious conversationalist who does not miss an opportunity to address a large audience – and it has done so numerous times already in technology fairs, national congresses – even the UN Assembly! Sophia is the first robot to be honoured with a UN title!
What will be the impact of such technologies on labour markets? If cars can drive themselves, what is going to happen to the taxi drivers? Or the domestic housekeepers – who may find themselves increasingly displaced by cleaning robots. Or warehouse workers who may find themselves displaced by delivery bots (did you know that Alibaba, the Chinese equivalent of eBay, owns a warehouse where most of the work is carried out by robots?). There is no doubt that labour markets are bound to change. But should we (the human labour force) be worried about it? Acemoglu et al (2017) think that we should:
Using a model in which robots compete against human labor in the production of different tasks, we show that robots may reduce employment and wages […] According to our estimates, one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18–0.34 percentage points and wages by 0.25–0.5 per cent.
Automation is likely to affect unskilled workers more than skilled ones, as unskilled jobs are the easiest ones to automate. This could have widespread social implications, as it might widen the divide between the poor (who are more likely to have unskilled jobs) and the affluent (who are more likely to own AI technologies). As mentioned in a recent Boston Consulting Group report (see below):
The future of work is likely to involve large structural changes to the labour market and potentially a net loss of jobs, mostly in routine occupations. An estimated 15 million UK jobs could be at risk of automation, with 63 per cent of all jobs impacted to a medium or large extent.
On the other hand, the adoption of automation is likely to result in higher efficiency, huge productivity gains and less waste. Automation will enable us to use the resources that we have in the most efficient way – and this is bound to result in wealth creation. It will also push human workers away from manual, routine jobs – and it will force them to acquire skills and engage in creative thinking. One thing is for certain: labour markets are changing and they are changing fast!
- What do you think is going to be the effect of automation on labour market participation in the future? Why?
- Using the Solow growth model, explain how automation is likely to affect economic growth and capital returns.
- In the context of the answer you gave to question 2, explain how human capital accumulation may affect the ability of workers to benefit from automation.
 Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets, NBER Working Paper No. 23285 (March 2017)
The UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced in the Budget this week that national insurance contributions (NICs) for self-employed people will rise from 9% to 11% by 2019. These are known as ‘Class 4’ NICs. The average self-employed person will pay around £240 more per year, but those on incomes over £45,000 will pay £777 more per year. Many of the people affected will be those working in the so-called ‘gig economy’. This sector has been growing rapidly in recent years and now has over 4 million people working in it.
Workers in the gig economy are self employed, but are often contracted to an employer. They are paid by the job (or ‘gig’: like musicians), rather than being paid a wage. Much of the work is temporary, although many in the gig economy, such as taxi drivers and delivery people stick with the same job. The gig economy is just one manifestation of the growing flexibility of labour markets, which have also seen a rise in temporary employment, part-time employment and zero-hour contracts.
Working in the gig economy provides a number of benefits for workers. Workers have greater flexibility in their choice of hours and many work wholly or partly from home. Many do several ‘gigs’ simultaneously, which gives variety and interest.
In terms of economic theory, this flexibility gives workers a greater opportunity to work the optimal amount of time. This optimum involves working up to the point where the marginal benefit from work, in terms of pay and enjoyment, equals the marginal cost, in terms of effort and sacrificed leisure.
For firms using people from the gig economy, it has a number of advantages. They are generally cheaper to employ, as they do not need to be paid sick pay, holiday pay or redundancy; they are not entitled to parental leave; there are no employers’ national insurance contributions to pay (which are at a rate of 13.8% for employers); the minimum wage does not apply to such workers as they are not paid a ‘wage’. Also the firm using such workers has greater flexibility in determining how much work individuals should do: it chooses the amount of service it buys in a similar way that consumers decide how much to buy.
Many of these advantages to firms are disadvantages to the workers in the gig economy. Many have little bargaining power, whereas many firms using their services do. It is not surprising then that the Chancellor’s announcement of a 2 percentage point rise in NICs for such people has met with such dismay by the people affected. They will still pay less than employed people, but they claim that this is now not enough to compensate for the lack of benefits they receive from the state or from the firms paying for their services.
Some of the workers in the gig economy can be seen as budding entrepreneurs. If you have a specialist skill, you may use working in the gig economy as the route to setting up your own business and employing other people. A self-employed plumber may set up a plumbing company; a management consultant may set up a management consultancy agency. Another criticism of the rise in Class 4 NICs is that this will discourage such budding entrepreneurs and have longer-term adverse supply-side effects on the economy.
As far as the government is concerned, there is a worry about people moving from employment to self-employment as it tends to reduce tax revenues. Not only will considerably less NIC be paid by previous employers, but the scope for tax evasion is greater in self-employment. There is thus a trade-off between the extra output and small-scale investment that self-employment might bring and the lower NIC/tax revenue for the government.
Thriving in the gig economy Philippine Daily Inquirer, Michael Baylosis (10/3/17)
6 charts that show how the ‘gig economy’ has changed Britain – and why it’s not a good thing Business Insider, Ben Moshinsky (21/2/17)
What is the ‘gig’ economy? BBC News, Bill Wilson (10/2/17)
Great Freelance, Contract and Part-Time Jobs for 2017 CareerCast (10/3/17)
We have the laws for a fairer gig economy, we just need to enforce them The Guardian, Stefan Stern (7/2/17)
The gig economy will finally have to give workers the rights they deserve Independent, Ben Chu (12/2/17)
Gig economy chiefs defend business model BBC News (22/2/17)
Spring Budget 2017 tax rise: What’s the fuss about? BBC News, Kevin Peachey (9/3/17)
Self-employed hit by national insurance hike in budget The Guardian, Simon Goodley and Heather Stewart (8/3/17)
What national insurance is – and where it goes The Conversation, Jonquil Lowe (10/3/17)
Britain’s tax raid on gig economy misses the mark Reuters, Carol Ryan (9/3/17)
Economics collides with politics in Philip Hammond’s budget The Economist (9/3/17)
UK government publications
Contract types and employer responsibilities – 5. Freelancers, consultants and contractors GOV.UK
Spring Budget 2017 GOV.UK (8/3/17)
Spring Budget 2017: documents HM Treasury (8/3/17)
National Insurance contributions (NICs) HMRC and HM Treasury (8/3/17)
- Give some examples of work which is generally or frequently done in the gig economy.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages to individuals from working in the gig economy?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages to firms from using the services of people in the gig economy rather than employing people?
- In the case of employed people, both the employees and the employers have to pay NICs. Would it be fair for both such elements to be paid by self-employed people on their own income?
- Discuss ways in which the government might tax the firms which buy the services of people in the gig economy.
- How does the rise of the gig economy affect the interpretation of unemployment statistics?
- What factors could cause a substantial growth in the gig economy over the coming years?
President-elect Donald Trump has blamed free trade for much of America’s economic problems. He argues that cheap imports from China, partly from an undervalued yuan, have led to a loss of jobs and to large-scale income flows from the USA to China. “They have taken our jobs; they have taken our money; and on top of that they have loaned the money to us and we actually pay them interest now on money,” he claimed to The Economist.
And it’s not just trade with China that he criticises. He sees cheap imports from developing countries generally as undermining US jobs. The solution he advocates is the imposition of tariffs on imports that threaten US jobs and scrapping, or fundamentally renegotiating, trade deals.
He refers to NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico – as the worst trade deal in US history and blames it for the loss of thousands of US manufacturing jobs. He has said that he will demand better terms from Mexico and Canada. If they don’t agree to them, he’d pull the USA out of NAFTA altogether.
A more recent trade agreement is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 other Pacific rim countries (but not including China). The agreement was signed on 4 February 2016, but is awaiting ratification from member countries. Amongst other things, the agreement cuts over 18,000 tariffs. Donald Trump has said that he would block the deal, even though it would lead to the elimination of tariffs on most US manufactured and agricultural products exported to the other countries. He argues that it would lead to a large-scale loss of US jobs from cheap imports.
Another major trade deal criticised by Trump is that being negotiated between the USA and the EU – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). It has already faced fierce opposition in Europe, with many fearing that it would give too much power to US corporations in their operations in Europe. With the opposition from Trump, it looks unlikely that the agreement will be signed, even in an amended form.
So is this more protectionist stance by Donald Trump in America’s interests? The main argument against restricting imports is that people generally in the USA would be poorer. This is the prediction from the law of comparative advantage. Trade allows a country to consume beyond its production possibility curve by specialising in the production of goods with relatively low opportunity costs and importing goods which would have had a higher opportunity cost if they were produced domestically (see, for example, Economics, 9th edition, pages 711–4). By imposing tariffs or other restrictions on cheap imports, consumers would end up paying more for such goods if they now have to be produced domestically. Cheap Chinese t-shirts would be replaced by expensive US ones. Real US incomes would be lower.
Another danger of pursuing protectionist policies is that other countries might retaliate. Trade wars might result, with the world ending up poorer.
Then there is a problem of locating products. It is not a simple question of saying a product is made in the USA or elsewhere. With complex modern supply chains, many products use components and services, such as design and logistics, from many different countries. Imposing restrictions on imports may lead to damage to products which are seen as US products.
An open trade policy, by contrast, not only leads to higher consumption, it stimulates economic growth and the extra competition it creates improves domestic productivity. As the pro-free trade article by Graeme Leach, linked below, argues:
There is overwhelming evidence that free trade improves economic performance by increasing competition in the domestic market. Trade disciplines domestic firms with market power, and simultaneously promotes productivity growth. Research also shows that a 10 per cent increase in trade leads to a 5 per cent increase in per capita income. More open trade policies are associated with higher per capita incomes.
And as the article by Clark Packard argues:
There is no question that America’s middle and lower classes have benefited from our trade liberalization. Through the widely accepted principle of comparative advantage in our trade policies, productivity has surged and prices have declined. Lower prices save the average American family thousands of dollars a year on goods they consume, raising the standard of living through enhanced purchasing power.
Despite these arguments, there is one crucial problem with free trade. Although overall levels of consumption may be higher, trade may make some people poorer. If workers in the US steel or garment industries lose their jobs because of cheap imports, they will certainly feel worse off, especially if there is no prospect of them getting another job elsewhere. They may lack transferable skills or have too many family or personal ties to move elsewhere in the country.
The government could help to ameliorate the problems of those made unemployed by providing retraining or resettlement grants or by investing in infrastructure projects that require relatively low skilled, but local, construction workers. But, as the Forbes article states:
It is in helping displaced workers of all types that US government, as well as the leaders of other rich countries, have largely failed. Little has been done to assist laid-off workers whose industries simply cannot compete in developed countries anymore.
What is more, inequality has been growing in the USA, and in most other developed countries too. International trade and investment and the growing concentration of power in large corporations has meant that most of the gains from trade have gone to the richest people. Many of the poor blame trade for their plight and the argument that they have still made some gains is either not believed or is not enough to appease them.
An interesting insight into why people may have voted for Trump and his policy of protectionism is provided by the Ultimatum Game (see also). As the final article below explains:
The game itself involves two players. The first player receives a sum of money, and gets to propose how to divide it between the two players. The second player can do only one thing: accept or reject the proposal. If the second player accepts, then the money is divided between the two players as proposed. But if the second player rejects the proposal, then neither player gets anything.
It might seem that the rational thing for the second person to do is to accept whatever the first person proposes, however little it gives to the second person providing it is something – after all, even a little is better than nothing. But experiments show that people playing the second person do not behave in that way. They seek a fair distribution. If the proposed distribution is perceived as unfair, they would prefer to reject the proposal, with both players getting nothing.
This may help to explain the psychology of poor blue-collar workers. They would rather punish the rich a lot, and possibly themselves a little, than let the rich continue getting richer while they are stuck on low wages with little prospect for improvement. But, of course, they may also believe Trump’s rhetoric that they will indeed be better off from protectionist policies that help save their jobs.
What precisely Donald Trump will do about trade agreements and protection, we will have to wait and see. Often what is pledged in an election campaign is not carried out in office or is substantially watered down.
How Donald Trump thinks about trade The Economist (9/11/16)
What President Trump’s victory means for the most important trade deal in the world Independent, James Moore (9/11/16)
Trump and trade: A radical agenda? BBC News, Ben Morris (9/11/16)
Trump could change trade stance, says former Bush adviser BBC News, Tom Espiner (11/11/16)
3 Ways President-Elect Trump May Shake Up Trade Policy NPR, Marilyn Geewax (9/11/16)
Donald Trump Win to Upend Trade Policy Nasdaq, William Mauldin and John Lyons (9/11/16)
Stiglitz Grades Donald Trump an F on Economics Bloomberg, Enda Curran and Angie Lau (19/9/16)
Trump can kill trade deals but he can’t kill globalisation The Conversation, Remy Davison (10/11/16)
Anti-free trader Donald Trump is on a collision course with economic reality City A.M., Graeme Leach (9/11/16)
What Trump And Clinton Both Get Wrong On Trade Forbes, Simon Constable (4/11/16)
The Rabble Understands Trade Pretty Well Huffington Post, Brad Miller (4/11/16)
Contrary to Donald Trump’s claims, free trade benefits the poorest Americans U.S.News, Clark Packard (27/10/16)
The Meaning of Open Trade and Open Borders The New Yorker, Bernard Avishai (17/10/16)
We just saw what voters do when they feel screwed. Here’s the economic theory of why they do it. Quartz, James Allworth (9/11/16)
- Use a simple two-product production possibility diagram to demonstrate the possible consumption gains to a country from trading with another country and specialising in exporting the good in which it has a comparative advantage.
- Search Donald Trump’s speeches to identify statements he has made about the trade policies he will pursue as president.
- Explain why some people may gain more from free trade than others. Why do the people who have gained the most tend to be the richest people?
- What are the arguments for and against the free movement of labour (a) within countries; (b) between countries?
- Compare the relative benefits and costs of tariffs and various forms of administrative constraints on trade.
- If the second player in the ultimatum game rejects an ‘unfair’ offer, should this behaviour be described as ‘irrational? Explain.
- Find out the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. In what ways, other than through increased trade, would the agreement benefit the residents of the member countries?
- Does free trade threaten employment in the long term? Explain.
Labour markets can be a key indicator of the strength of an economy, with emphasis placed on measures including the unemployment rate and the rate of job creation. Over the past few decades, we have seen many changes in the UK labour market, with more women, more part-time jobs, flexible hours and a shift towards services. After the financial crisis, unemployment declined and more and more people were entering the labour market. But one criticism of this was zero-hours contracts. They are nothing new and were considered in earlier blogs.
Zero hours contracts are essentially what they say: a contract where you are guaranteed to work for zero hours. This means that under such a contract, there is no guarantee that you will have employment on any given day/week and hence this creates uncertainty. However, on the other side, there can be more flexibility with such a contract and with growth in female participation and part-time work, flexibility is essential for many people. James Sproule, Director of Policy at the Institute of Directors said:
“Zero hours contracts offer businesses and employees an important degree of flexibility. For skilled professionals, a degree of flexibility can boost their earning power, while flexibility also suits students and older people – the main users of zero-hours contracts – who cannot commit to a set number of hours each and every week.”
The ONS has found that businesses are using more zero-hours contracts, with a 6% rise. This reflects a growth in January from 1.4 million to 1.5 million zero-hours contracts, though this increase was not statistically significant. Over the past year, the use of these contracts has increased by 19%, from 624,000 people employed on them in 2014 to 744,000 people in 2015.
Although there has undoubtedly been an increase in the number of people employed on zero-hours contracts, there is also more recognition of these contracts. Therefore, part of the increase in the numbers could be down to this recognition and not just due to more and more people moving onto these contracts. With this greater flexibility, comes more opportunities for more people to enter the labour market. While this is a good thing, it can hide some other aspects. For example, if more people are working, it may suggest a fall in the rate of unemployment and a rise in employment, but perhaps this is misleading if some of those in employment are under-employed. The data revealed that:
On average, someone on a zero-hours contract usually works 25 hours a week, with around 40% of them wanting more hours, most from their current job, rather than in a different or additional one.
Furthermore, for some people there may be very few other options. However, there was also evidence that the possibility of zero-hours contracts has created opportunities for those who may otherwise not have entered the labour market: perhaps women re-entering the labour market and students in full time education. They also offer businesses greater flexibility and this may be a key way for the UK to improve efficiency and productivity. Jon Ingham from Glassdoor, an employment analyst said:
“It’s no great surprise to see the number of people on these contracts is on the up … It’s safe to say that employees who accept a zero hours contract do not do so as a career choice. For most it’s because they have limited options. For some it might be beneficial to have the flexibility to fit around their lifestyle but for others it’s a substandard contract which offers little in the way of benefits or security.”
The change in the structure of the labour market has been on-going and this may be a small change in amongst a much larger structural change. As the economy continues its recovery, we may see a return to the more typical working contract, but it appears that there will always be this greater demand for flexibility in working patterns and hence perhaps the zero-hours contracts do have a place in Britain. The following articles consider the implications of this data.
Employee contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of hours: 2015 udpate Office for National Statistics September 2015
Number of workers on zero-hours contracts up by 19% The Guardian, Phillip Inman (2/9/15)
Zero-hours contracts hold their place in UK labour market Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (2/9/15)
Zero-hours contracts jump 19% in a year Sky News (2/9/15)
19 per cent rise in people on zero hours contracts recorded across Britain over the last year Independent (2/9/15)
Use of zero-hours contracts rises by 6% BBC News (2/9/15)
Insecure ‘zero-hours’ jobs on the rise in Britain – ONS Reuters (2/9/15)
- What is a zero-hours contract?
- Outline the main advantages and disadvantages of zero-hours contracts to both workers and businesses. You should think about different types of workers in your answer.
- How do you think the increase in zero-hours contracts has affected the unemployment rate in the UK?
- What is meant by under-employment? Would you class this as inefficient?
- What other changes have we seen in the UK labour market over the past 30 years? Have these changes made the labour market more or less flexible?
- Zero-hours contracts create greater flexibility. Do you think that they create greater functional, numerical of financial flexibility?
- If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
- Using the ONS data, find out how the use of zero-hours contracts varies by occupation and explain why.
In a post last August we looked at the rising number of workers employed on ‘zero-hours’ contracts. These are contracts where there are no guaranteed minimum hours. Such contracts give employers the flexibility to employ workers as much or as little as suits the business. Sometimes it benefits workers, who might be given the flexibility to request the hours that suit them, but usually workers simply have to take the hours on offer.
Latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that zero-hours contracts are on the increase. In 2014 quarter 4, 697,000 workers were recorded as being on zero-hours contracts. This represents 2.3% of people in employment. Ten years ago (2004, Q4) the figures were 108,000 or 0.4%: see chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Around one third of the 697,000 people on zero-hours contracts wanted more work if they could get it and most wanted it in their current job rather than having to move jobs. These people wanting more work can be classed as underemployed. They also include those not on a zero-hours contract who would like to work more if they could.
According to the ONS:
‘People on zero-hours contracts are more likely to be women, in full-time education or in young or older age groups when compared with other people in employment. On average, someone on a zero-hours contract usually works 25 hours a week.’ (See section 4 of the report for more details.)
As we saw in the earlier post, many public- and private-sector employers use such contracts, including many small and medium-sized enterprises and many well-known large companies, such as Sports Direct, Amazon, JD Wetherspoon and Cineworld. It gives them the flexibility to adjust the hours they employ people. It allows them to keep people in employment when demand is low. It also makes them more willing to take on staff when demand rises, as it removes the fear of being over-staffed if demand then falls back.
As we also saw, zero-hours contracts are not the only form of flexible working. Other examples include: ‘self-employed’ workers, contracted separately for each job they do for a company; people paid largely or wholly on commission; on-call working; part-time working, where the hours are specified in advance, but where these are periodically re-negotiated; overtime; people producing a product or service for a company (perhaps at home), where the company varies the amount paid per unit according to market conditions.
The extent of zero-hours contracts varies dramatically from one sector of the economy to another. Only 0.6% of workers in the Information, Finance and Professional sectors were on zero-hours contracts in 2014 Q4, whereas 10% in the Accommodation and Food sectors were.
The flexibility that such contracts give employers may make them more willing to keep on workers when demand is low – they can reduce workers’ hours rather than laying them off. It also may make them more willing to take on workers (or increase their hours) when demand is expanding, not having to worry about being over staffed later on.
However, many workers on such contracts find it hard to budget when their hours are not guaranteed and can vary significantly from week to week.
lmost 700,000 people in UK have zero-hours contract as main job The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/2/15)
UK firms use 1.8m zero-hours contracts, says ONS BBC News (25/1/15)
Zero-hours contracts jump in UK Financial Times, Emily Cadman (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts ‘disturbingly’ hit 1.8 million in 2014 International Business Times, Ian Silvera (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts a reality for almost 700,000 UK workers, ONS figures show Independent, Antonia Molloy (25/1/15)
Contracts with No Guaranteed Hours, Zero Hour Contracts, 2014 ONS Release (25/1/15)
Supplementary LFS data on zero hours contracts – October to December 2014 ONS dataset (25/2/15)
Analysis of Employee Contracts that do not Guarantee a Minimum Number of Hours ONS Report (25/1/15)
- Distinguish between open unemployment, disguised unemployment and underemployment?
- Distinguish between functional, numerical and financial flexibility? Which type or types of flexibility do zero-hours contracts give the firm?
- In a ‘flexible’ labour market, what forms can that flexibility take?
- Why does the Accommodation and Food sector have a relatively high proportion of people employed on zero-hours contracts?
- What are the benefits and costs to employers of using zero-hours contracts?
- If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
- What are the benefits and costs to employees of working on zero-hours contracts?
- Why has the use of zero-hours contracts risen so rapidly?
- Using the ONS data, find out how the use of zero-hours contracts varies by occupation and explain why.
- Identify what forms of flexible contracts are used for staff in your university or educational establishment. Do they benefit (a) staff; (b) students?
- Consider the arguments for and against (a) banning and (b) regulating zero-hours contracts.