Avoiding the ‘Robocalypse’

Will robots eventually take over the economy by performing most jobs? Here are a pair of contradictory visions.
David McCannDecember 9, 2019
Avoiding the ‘Robocalypse’

Will robots eventually take over the economy by performing most jobs? The opening-day keynote speaker, economist and futurist Jason Schenker, presented a pair of contradictory visions at CFO Live, a recent conference hosted by CFO.

“People are very focused on what I call the ‘robocalypse,’ but the truth is, technology will end up creating a lot of jobs,” he said.

As evidence, he pointed to Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that from 2000 through the end of 2017 the number of U.S. retail jobs declined by 500,000. Over the same period, 700,000 jobs were added in transportation, warehousing, and storage.

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“The supply chain is moving around, becoming more technology-oriented and creating new jobs,” Schenker observed. “And by the way, the lowest-paying of those [700,000] jobs pay more than the highest-paying retail jobs. You’re going to see this continue on.”

Today, he noted, many college graduates are looking ahead to careers in content and social media marketing. There were no such jobs 10 years ago. And 10 years hence, college grads will be positioning to take jobs that don’t currently exist.

Jason Schenker talks about the future “quantum state” of the U.S. economy

But Schenker didn’t completely disallow the possibility of a kind of en masse replacement of human employees by robots coming to pass. A prime cause of such an event, for example, could be a jump in labor costs. The culprit likely would be entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and welfare — which Schenker collectively characterized as a $200 trillion off-balance-sheet obligation for the U.S. government.

Among all the tax cuts in the federal tax reform bill passed in late 2017, he noted, nowhere to be seen were payroll tax cuts. “In the decade ahead if we were to see payroll taxes of 25%, I would not be surprised,” Schenker observed.

And if employers’ payroll tax tab were to rise from the current 7.5% of employee wages to 12.5%, “they might think about automating more jobs — maybe even more than is reasonable, because they’d be over-incentivized to do it,” he concluded. “That’s a risk going forward.”

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