Some of this is contested. Recent evidence suggests the extent of polarization may be overstated as it has not taken into account entirely new middle-income roles that replace old ones. Others point out that job-title inflation means that yesterday’s mid-level jobs are sometimes counted as today’s high-level ones. Some roles that are popularly assumed to have fallen prey to machines have adapted and survived — as US President Barack Obama realized to his cost when he asserted that ATMs have led to the demise of bank tellers (their numbers have risen). And it is important to keep a sense of proportion: Between 1990 and 2010 employment in hard-hit occupations in the UK like skilled trades fell by 25 percent and administrative jobs by 20 percent. Big losses, but they hardly represent the death of mid-level jobs.
A narrow focus on technology is also inadequate, as it fails to explain some of the big shifts of the past decade, like the explosion in rewards at the very top — 60 percent of the enormous increase in the slice of income flowing upwards to the richest 1 percent over the past decade went to those working in finance. To lay this at the door of the anonymous force called “technology” is to excuse way too much. Sure, developments in ICT were relevant, but they do not explain political choices over deregulation or account for rapacious rent-seeking by the financial elite. Wage inequality has many authors, from the demise of collective bargaining to the rise of globalization. As the influential Washington-based EPI think tank has argued: Do not make robots the fall guy.
Nor does an exclusive techno-focus illuminate the post-crisis polarization of the jobs market, which has seen recession-busting increases in high-paying jobs in sectors like business services alongside a big growth in low-paid work, with sharp falls in between in sectors like construction. Further signs of the impact of technology? Doubtful. This pattern has coincided with a demand-starved economy, an investment strike by business and plummeting wages. Indeed, recently the robots could be forgiven for worrying about their prospects given the falling cost of labor. It all adds up to a complex story. The hollowing out of the jobs market is real and important. However, its scale can be overstated and technology, though crucial, is by no means the only factor at work. None of this means we should be sanguine about the future.
Given the uncertainties and the capacity of market economies to adapt to shocks, many will assume that things will continue much as they have done. Perhaps. However, if the techno-enthusiasts are at least partly right, the consequences will be far-reaching.