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)
Recent figures from the ONS suggest that the UK lags well behind its competitors in terms of labour productivity. In terms of output per hour worked, Germany produces 22% more than the UK, France produces 26% more, the USA produces 27% more, the Netherlands 31% more and Ireland 43% more. The first chart illustrates some of these figures.
(Click here for a PowerPoint of this chart.)
And in the past few years the problem has been getting worse. This is shown in the second chart. This, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until 2006, the gap was narrowing, but since then it has widened. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the second chart.)
What has caused this widening of the gap? Part of the problem is a historical lack of investment in the UK. Between 2005 and 2012, the UK invested on average 15.7% of GDP. The USA invested 16.5%, Germany 17.9% and France 20.1%. And part of the problem has been the cut back in private-sector investment in response to the recession (which has been deeper in the UK) and in public-sector investment as part of the government’s austerity measures.
Part of the problem has been lower levels of inward investment. Inward direct investment to the UK in 2011 was only 24 per cent of that in 2007. In France, Germany, Italy and the USA, the figures were 43, 50, 66 and 105 per cent respectively.
Part of the problem has been the size of the financial sector in the UK. This is considerably larger as a proportion of the economy than in most the UK’s major competitors. And it was this sector most hard hit by the crisis of 2007/8.
With this poor productivity performance, you might expect unemployment to have soared. In fact, the UK has one of the lowest unemployment rates of the developed countries and in recent months it has been falling while other countries have seen their unemployment rates rise.
In fact, low productivity and high employment are compatible. If people produce less than their counterparts abroad, then more people will be needed to produce the same level of output. The problem, of course, is that this only works if wages are kept down. Indeed, wages have fallen in real terms and now stand at the level of 10 years ago.
The problem of falling real wages is that this translates into a lack of demand – especially when people are trying to reduce their debts. Not only does this result in a lack of economic growth, it discourages firms from investing – and investment is one of the prime drivers of future productivity growth!
The following articles explore the problem of low productivity and its relationship with employment and with both short-term and long-term economic growth.
UK has widest productivity gap since 1993 City A.M., Ben Southwood (14/2/13)
Productivity ‘key to UK’s economic future’ SnowdropKCS (7/2/13)
Low wages and lack of investment – why UK’s productivity has slumped Wales Online, David Williamson (2/3/13)
Recovery in jobs gives a fillip before the news on growth Independent, Russell Lynch (23/1/13)
U.K. Triple-Dipping as Productivity Falls Slate, Matthew Yglesias (25/1/13)
UK productivity puzzle baffles economists BBC News, By Andrew Walker (18/10/12)
Is low productivity a structural problem in the UK? BBC Today Programme, Bridget Rosewell and Andrew Sentance (4/1/13)
We Need to Talk About the Middle Huffington Post, Stewart Wood (14/2/13)
UK Wages Slump to Lowest Level in a Decade – ONS International Business Times, Shane Croucher (13/2/13)
Britain’s low-wage economy serves as a bind on the country The Guardian, Philip Inman (13/2/13)
Real wages fall back to 2003 levels in UK The Guardian, Hilary Osborne (13/2/13)
International Comparisons of Productivity – Final Estimates for 2011 ONS (13/2/13)
International Comparisons of Productivity, datasets ONS (13/2/13)
Changes in real earnings in the UK and London, 2002 to 2012 ONS (13/2/13)
- Which is a better measure of productivity – output per worker or output per hour worked? Why, do you think, does the USA produce 39% more per worker, but only 27% more per hour worked?
- What policies should the government adopt in order to encourage a growth in productivity?
- If productivity growth increased, what would be the likely effect on employment? Explain.
- Why has unemployment not risen in recent months?
Countries differ considerably in terms of the number of hours people work.
Despite the criticisms levelled at Greece, with some claiming that Greek workers are ‘lazy’, according to 2010 figures, the average worker in Greece worked 2109 hours per year – more than in any other European country. The average German worker worked 1419 hours and the average Dutch worker only 1377.
Internationally, amongst developed countries, Korea has the highest number of working hours per worker at 2193 per year. In the USA, the figure is 1778 hours and in the UK it’s 1647. (Click on chart below for a larger version.)
But working long hours does not mean working more productively. Generally the countries in which people work longer hours have lower output per hour.
The following podcast and articles look at the relationship between hours worked and productivity and consider which way the causality lies. They also look at related issues such as the proportion of part-time working and the length of annual paid holidays.
Hardest Working Nations (also at) More or Less: BBC Radio 4, Tim Harford talks to Jon Messenger from the ILO (18/5/12)
Who works the longest hours? BBC News Magazine, Wesley Stephenson (23/5/12)
Are Greeks the hardest workers in Europe? BBC News Magazine, Charlotte McDonald (26/2/12)
Working Time around the World ILO, Sangheon Lee, Deirdre McCann and Jon C. Messenger (Routledge, 2007)
International Comparisons of Productivity – 2010 – Final Estimates: Statistical Bulletin ONS (6/3/12)
International Comparisons of Productivity – 2010 – Final Estimates: Data ONS (6/3/12)
Productivity Statistics OECD
Table 8: Average annual working time: Hours per worker Employment and Labour Markets, OECD
- Which countries tend to work the longest hours?
- Would cutting working hours, either through legislation or by agreement with companies, allow more people to be employed? Explain why it might be more complicated than this.
- What is the relationship between labour productivity per hour and the average number of hours worked per worker? Do people work longer hours because they are less productive or are they less productive because they work longer hours?
- Why factors determine labour productivity?
- Why may average hours worked be deceptive in terms of assessing how hard people are working?
- Why do US workers work more hours per year on average than UK workers?
The problem with banks and the financial sector is that we need them. Who knows what might have happened if the government hadn’t stepped in to bail out the banks. And that’s one of the key arguments for continuing to pay bankers’ bonuses. If they left their jobs and the banks ceased to exist, we’d be looking at a very bleak future.
The truth is: ‘we need them’ and, what’s worse, they know it. As Frank Skinner said in a Times article: ‘during the crisis bankers will be thinking, “Don’t panic. The public have got short memories. Show them the slightest hint of recovery and most of them will forget their moral indignation and we can start where we left off – making the biggest splashes we can and not worrying about the ripples” ‘.
Despite the argument for continuing to pay out bonuses, a large proportion of the public are understandably angry that bankers are still receiving enormous bonuses. Not only are banks and the financial sector largely responsible for the current recession, but it is taxpayers who have bailed them out and who now pay their bonuses. However, things could be about to change.
The FSA is set to get powers, allowing it to ‘tear up’ bankers’ bonus contracts, especially for those taking reckless risks that threaten the stability of the financial sector. The new regulations will be found in the Financial Services Bill, which, if approved by Parliament, will apply to all British banks, as well as the British subsidiaries of overseas banks operating in the UK. Multi-million pound payments will be able to be blocked and fines will be imposed on banks who offer unjustified ‘mega-bucks pay-outs’.
Despite this impending regulation, not everyone thinks it will be successful. Sir George Mathewson, the former Chairman of RBS, has said that interfering with bankers’ contracts is a ‘dangerous route to go down’. Read the following articles that consider this contentious issue.
Bankers bonuses’ ‘will soar to £6bn’ after government bailouts and rising profits Times Online, Katherine Griffiths (21/10/09)
Bonus crackdown plans dangerous BBC News (16/11/09)
Financial regulation ‘has broken down’ BBC Today Programme (16/11/09)
Roger Bootle: Bank reform hasn’t gone far enough (video) BBC News (25/12/09)
FSA to get powers to tear up’ bankers’ bonus contracts Citywire, Nicholas Paler (16/11/09)
It’ll be tough for bankers on a £200k bonus Times Online, Frank Skinner (13/11/09)
Prince Andrew defends bankers’ bonuses even as economy stays mired in recession Mail Online, Kate Loveys (24/10/09)
Curb on bankers’ bonuses to be unveiled in Queens’ speech Mail Online (13/11/09)
Bankers warn laws on pay and bonuses will scare off talent Telegraph Angela Monaghan (13/11/09)
Labour to overturn bonus deals at risk-taking banks Guardian Patrick Wintour (13/11/09)
Banking on the State Guardian (17/11/09)
Queen outlines new banking laws BBC News (18/11/09)
Queen’s Speech: what the Financial Bill really means for bankers’ bonuses Telegraph, Tracy Corrigan (18/11/09)
Brown Puts Deficit Curbs, Bonus Limits on U.K. Agenda Bloomberg, Gonzalo Vina and Thomas Penny (18/11/09)
Queen’s speech 2009: financial services bill Guardian, Jill Treanor (18/11/09)
- What is meant by ‘regulation’ and what forms does it take?
- Why are banks and the financial services largely blamed for the current recession? Will financial regulation of bonuses prevent a repeat of the current crisis?
- What are the arguments for and against further regulation? Why does the former Chairman of RBS argue that cracking down on bonuses could be ‘dangerous’? Do you agree?
- Why are bankers paid so much? How is the equilibrium wage rate determined in this sector?
- Should bankers receive bonuses? Think about the incentive effect; the effect on productivity. What are the possible consequences for those working in banking of bonuses being reduced and possibly removed if they are deemed to threaten financial stability?