Worried that a robot is going to take your job? The truth is just the opposite. We are actually running out of people but there maybe hope in a new digital world.
Demography is destiny. For years we have been fed a steady stream about the dangers of population growth. Starting with the “Population Bomb” by Paul Erlich in 1968 and multiplied by misguided prescriptions like China’s “One Child” policy, we have been working to cap or reverse feared population growth for fifty years. We have built our economy and institutions on the assumption of continuing growth in people (who are the worker and consumer foundation of our economies). Unfortunately, it’s wrong and the implications are profound. Will the shift to digitization happening just in time to save us?
Population in developed nations like the U.S. is only sustained by inward migration. The CDC’s recent announcement only reinforces the point. Stories of greying and abandoned towns and villages in Japan, Italy, America and others abound. In Eastern Germany, the wolves have returned after 150 years as the people have disappeared.
Even ascendant China risks getting old before it gets rich. Recognizing its error China first expanded its “One Child“ to a Two Child” policy and now just in the last weeks it is considering scrapping the limit altogether. But it may be too late. All the little princes – as the one child generation is known – prefer having just one or no children. Imagine the China of today with a 1.4 Billion population dropping to as low as 600 million by the end of the century.
But it is not only the developed and recently developing nations of the world who are experiencing shrinkage. Demographers are now talking about “peak human” and “peak child” or the maximum global population we will see before the decline. When pressed, the recognition of rising education levels and the growing empowerment of women has forced the U.N. to abandon the apocalyptical ever growing population forecasts for projections of plateaus and even potential population declines world wide, as you can see by the chart below.
Why did we just go through the deep dive in current demographic trends? Because the well being of you and your off-spring will be determined by them unless there are some changes. Generally, rises in living standards (i.e. wages) are driven by rises in productivity. The last 20 years in the U.S. have seen no change in wages because we now understand that there were really no increases in productivity. For years we got to experience apparent prosperity by living off the cheap labor (and hence lower prices for goods) in countries like China (if you did not lose you job to them).
Now we have a double whammy: no more cheap labor from overseas and no more labor here in the U.S. There are shortages, both current and forecast, in just about any labor category. Unemployment is at historic lows and so is labor force participation. Worse yet, the great benefits of digitization are not quite here yet. The productivity lift we hoped for from driverless cars, automated medicine, and A.I assistants are tantalizing close but not yet real.
The question is: can we get there before economic decline sets in? Not only do we not have enough carpenters, plumbers, hospital aides, etc. but the key to the future in productivity growth is in short supply. There are just not enough cloud engineers, or enough developers, or enough data scientists, or enough A.I. talent.
What’s the solution? Surprisingly, demographics may be coming to our aid here. The key is can we harness these trends to meet the digital gap in order to spur productivity in time.
First, women have surged into the workforce; in fact without them the labor participation rate would have plummeted even further. Second, older workers are staying on the job much longer than the traditional retirement model – making them one of the fastest growing segments of the labor force.
In both cases economics and corporate culture changes are playing a role. Companies are recognizing the importance of maternity benefits, etc. as well as the value of contributions from more experienced workers. The challenge is that the very industry that needs talent – high tech – is the most notorious for its sexism and ageism. Can these companies and institutions change their ways to leverage these “new” resources?
In a delicious irony but this time on a society wide scale, we can see successful technology adoption and advancement depends not on technology per se but on the people and cultural dynamics. What do you think: are we going to make it? If not, what will the world look like, besides emptier?