Wealth without workers, workers without wealth
The digital revolution is bringing sweeping change to labour markets in both rich and poor worlds
In the coming years the disruption will be felt by more people in more places, for three reasons. First, the rise of machine intelligence means more workers will see their jobs threatened. The effects will be felt further up the skill ladder, as auditors, radiologists and researchers of all sorts begin competing with machines. Technology will enable some doctors or professors to be much more productive, leaving others redundant.
Second, wealth creation in the digital era has so far generated little employment. Entrepreneurs can turn their ideas into firms with huge valuations and hardly any staff. Oculus VR, a maker of virtual-reality headsets with 75 employees, was bought by Facebook earlier this year for $2 billion. With fewer than 50,000 workers each, the giants of the modern tech economy such as Google and Facebook are a small fraction of the size of the 20th century’s industrial behemoths.
Third, these shifts are now evident in emerging economies. Foxconn, long the symbol of China’s manufacturing economy, at one point employed 1.5m workers to assemble electronics for Western markets. Now, as the costs of labour rise and those of automated manufacturing fall, Foxconn is swapping workers for robots. China’s future is more Alibaba than assembly line: the e-commerce company that recently made a spectacular debut on the New York Stock Exchange employs only 20,000 people.
The answer is not regulation or a larger state. High minimum wages will simply accelerate the replacement of workers by machines. Punitive tax rates will deter entrepreneurship and scare off the skilled on whom prosperity in the digital era depends. The best thing governments can do is to raise the productivity and employability of less-skilled workers. That means getting rid of daft rules that discourage hiring, like protections which make it difficult to sack poor performers. It means better housing policy and more investment in transport, to help people work in productive cities such as London and Mumbai.