Recently we noted that except for times of war or natural disaster, young people have never had it so bad economically, due primarily to the loss of jobs and globalization. But where did all those jobs go, particularly those good factory jobs that were the mainstay of the working class? According to Matthew Yglesias over on Vox, robots took the manufacturing jobs — and they're not coming back.
The common assumption (and the claim of certain politicians) is that the jobs went to China and Mexico, and that these jobs can be brought back. But it turns out that these are the most labor-intensive jobs, and yes, those kinds of jobs are being replaced with robots too. The reality is that lots of stuff is still being made in America:
… when you look at the data, the decline of manufacturing employment actually doesn't reflect a broader decline in the state of American manufacturing. In fact, the output — as measured in inflation-adjusted dollars — of the U.S. manufacturing sector is higher than it's ever been, even as manufacturing employment has barely recovered from its recession-era lows:
In "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future," author Martin Ford explains why no job is safe. A few recessions ago we had a joke in the architecture profession: “What do you say to an architect with a job?” Answer: “Would you like fries with that?”
Now, even the hamburger flipper is being put out of work. Momentum Machines automates gourmet hamburger making from scratch at a rate of 360 per hour, complete with toasted buns and selected condiments. The founder says, “Our job isn’t to make employees more efficient, it’s meant to completely obviate them.”
As for those offshore jobs that the politicians want to bring back, Nike is worried about rising wages in Indonesia and other other offshore manufacturing centers along with complaints about sweatshop conditions there. the answer, says Ford: “According to the company’s chief financial officer, the long term solution to the problem is going to be “engineering the labor out of the product.”
The new jobs that are created through technology also need a lot fewer people. Ford notes that in 2012 Google made a profit of $14 billion with fewer than 38,000 employees. At its peak in 1979, General Motors employed 840,000 workers to make $11 billion, adjusted for inflation.
Yglesias concludes that “for better or for worse, the bulk of employment growth in the future is going to come from health care and other in-person services” but even that probably will not generate as many as we expect. Human beings are expensive and tend to take coffee breaks; robots are more dependable. According to aging expert Joseph Coughlin writing in the Big Think:
Researchers at the Fraunhoffer Institute in Germany developed Care-o-Bot, a servicebot that tells stories, plays music and even calls for help in an emergency. Japan’s research community has long been on the frontier of robotics and aging. One example is Robear a bear-like robot that is gentle enough to lift and move a frail older adult. Now from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University is Nadine. Standing 5 feet 7 inches or 1.7 meters tall Nadine is a humanoid robot that seems deep in the uncanny valley of being very human-like but…not. Nadine can join you in conversation, recall your last exchange and show a wide range of facial expressions and body language.
According to the Economist, the victories of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the Michigan primary were due primarily to voters who are worried about jobs and hostile to free trade and globalization. “Trump’s ambition is to talk of border walls and hefty import tariffs, to galvanize working-class voters and put manufacturing states in play.”
But it really doesn’t matter how high the wall or the tariff goes. Those jobs are not coming back because they don’t exist any more. The robots took them.