Harold Meyerson on the ‘coming jobs apocalypse’


Harold Meyerson at the Washington Post has an opinion on the The coming job apocalypse:

As a general rule, more Americans work than do the citizens of other advanced economies . . .  But that general rule may be changing. The percentage of working-age adults in the U.S. labor force began to decline in 2000, when it reached a peak of 67 percent. As of last month, it was down to 63 percent, which is lower than the level in the United Kingdom. Not since the late 1970s has Britain had a higher share of workforce participants than the United States.

Part of this decline is because of the retirement of aging boomers, but that explanation goes only so far. It doesn’t explain, for instance, why the workforce participation of Americans ages 25 to 34 has declined from 83.3 percent to 81.8 percent since 2007, as the Financial Times reported this week. Worse yet, the number of hours that working Americans are on the job is in decline, too. In the past six months, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the average workweek has shrunk from 34.5 hours to 34.2 hours — even as the official unemployment rate has dropped.

Anti-Obama partisans blame the president and his policies for the dwindling workforce, but the decline began in the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency and continued through much of the presidency of George W. Bush. Clearly, either bipartisan public policy or something more fundamental than public policy is to blame.

The bipartisan public policy that should raise the most suspicion is trade policy, which fostered the offshoring of more than 2 million manufacturing jobs after Congress normalized trade relations with China in 2000. But an even more fundamental factor in the declining share of working Americans is the technological automation that has eliminated millions of jobs and is poised to eliminate millions more.

The mechanization of work has already taken a toll in the nation’s ports (where cranes have reduced the longshore workforce to roughly 10 percent of its size 60 years ago), factories (where machines and computers have substituted for millions of workers), construction sites (where the prefabrication of parts has reduced the number of construction workers ) and offices (whatever became of secretaries?). And with increasing computing capacity steadily expanding the abilities of machines, we ain’t seen nothing yet.


In a paper they wrote last year, Carl Benedikt Frey of Oxford University’s Program on the Impacts of Future Technology, and Michael A. Osborn, an Oxford engineering professor, broke down the U.S. economy into 702 distinct occupations and classified those occupations by the probability of their computerization over the next few decades. They concluded that 47 percent of U.S. workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs automated over the next 20 years, including in transportation (where the driverless car has become a reality), manufacturing and retail sales. They offer no particular policy suggestions to remedy this cataclysm, save that “high-skill and high-wage” jobs are the least likely to be swept away and that workers, accordingly, need “to acquire creative and social skills” that computers are unlikely to master until a more distant time.

Frey and Osborne acknowledge that there is a lot of speculation encoded in their equations. But even if they’re half right, or just a third right, that would mean that 23.5 percent or 15.7 percent, respectively, of U.S. workers face a future of employment extermination. I doubt that the mass acquisition of creative and social skills is sufficient to meet this challenge. The way to deal with such a job apocalypse would begin with the very measures that we have failed to enact to combat the cyclical downturn that began in 2008: a massive government program to build and repair our infrastructure and to provide the preschool education and elder care that the nation needs, which would increase consumption and economic activity generally.

[This is doing what we know has worked in the past, but this is for a past economy in which we no longer live; these solutions may no longer be as effective in our present — or future — economy because of rapidly advancing technology.]

Eventually, however, as computers pick up more and more skills, we will have to embrace the necessity of redistributing wealth and income from the shrinking number of Americans who have sizable incomes from their investments or their work to the growing number of Americans who want work but can’t find it. That may or may not be socialism; certainly, it’s survival.

I’ve posed this policy question before: Has mankind innovated itself into obsolescence? A world without money and paid work is the stuff of science fiction — in fact, the 24th Century world portrayed in Star Trek. A World Without Work: Star Trek Edition | Everywhere Once. But this is not a policy prescription for our jobs crisis.

With the exception of a few scientists and economists, and a few pundits, no one in government is seriously thinking about the policy implications of a growing population coupled with a declining demand for workers due to computerization and technology automation. As the old saying goes, “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.”


  1. Blah, blah, blah? What kind of comment is that? We now have neatly curcumvented the economic policy universe:
    1. Tax rates on job creators are too high, both personal and corporate, inhibiting job creation.
    2. Welfare is too accumulating, we need that population to be 30 million, not 50 million. It is reducing the pace of reentry to the job force.
    3. Regulation is too burdensome, destroying jobs.
    4. Monetary policy favors capital over labor.

    In the age of Reagan, 85 percent of minimum wage workers had moved on to higher wage levels within three years. In the age of Obama, minimum wage workers are pooling and accumulating at an alarming rate.

    • But, Thuck, is it dishonest, using a pseudonym, to refer to yourself in the third person, giving the false impression that you are not the person to whom you’re referring?

    • 1. Wrong

      2. No it isn’t

      3. Nope

      4. Horsepuckey

      In the age of Reagan there were still strong labor unions and manufacturing jobs. Direct link between the decline of unions and declining wages and job opportunities. And as Jon Talton say, if low taxes and no regulations were the key to a successful economy, then Mississippi and Somalia would be the most successful economies on earth. Yet, strangely, they’re not.

  2. You are correct, incomes are collapsing, especially for the poor, the young and minorities. Collapsing labor supply means collapsing labor demand. Each person not quickly filling a job removes the demand for another job, the marginal job, the job most likely to be filled by the young, the minority and the poor.

    This blogs point about tech eliminating jobs is probably true to this extent: capital is a substitute for labor and capital has essentially been free for companies for almost five years now. Hence skyrocketing corporate profits and a jobless recovery. This doesn’t explain the unusual ratio of job openings to job creation. Only Rogersons and Prescott’s work explains that.

    • Blah, blah, blah

      But what about my question:

      Is it dishonest, using a pseudonym, to refer to yourself in the third person, giving the false impression that you are not the person to whom you’re referring?

  3. We know exactly why the employment to population ratio is collapsing. See the work of Edward Prescott and Richard Rogerson. Taxation and welfare have massive effects on labor supply. About 50 million job openings take place annually, a stunning number considering that there are about 140 million jobs total. Any policy which has even a small effect on the velocity at which these jobs are filled has major effects on job ctreation because every job creates another job. A job not filled for a week is another job not created for a week.

    • Thuckenheimer, if what you say were correct, wages would be rising, but they’re not.

      But back to my question, which you still refuse to answer:

      Is it dishonest, using a pseudonym, to refer to yourself in the third person, giving the false impression that you are not the person to whom you’re referring?

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