The robots are coming for the Chinese jobs, too

Talk about jobs and wages to most sectors of the American left, and you’re likely to hear that the problems in the modern economy are mostly political rather than structural: essentially, that changes to tax, labor and trade law created an easier environment for companies to reduce wages and outsource labor.

That is certainly true to a large extent. But it’s also undeniable that the march of technology has done much to alter the labor market terrain, often in subtle ways. When people think of mechanization they usually think of a big robot taking a manufacturing job from someone in a hard hat. But most of the biggest effects are much more subtle: instead of machines making cars, think primarily of Amazon.com slashing retail jobs, or Instagram killing Kodak, or big data analysis putting armies of researchers out of work. Better communications and travel technology has also made the global supply chain more efficient, eliminating some of the roadblocks to outsourcing labor.

One of the most common responses to this argument is that technological change has always been with us, and that new jobs always arise to replace the old ones. But that hasn’t been the case. Internet-related jobs still haven’t come close to replacing the quantity and quality of work that the digital revolution eliminated.

Another argument is that the manufacturing work usually to be done by human hands, and that if we just institute trade protections, those jobs will come back onshore. That argument gets more difficult, though, when the robots are taking Chinese jobs, too:

Industrial robots, whose market in China is showing promising signs as workers get replaced due to higher labor costs. A lot of domestic robot manufacturers want to join the party and slice a piece of cake with foreign competitors. But they seem to be facing a tough road ahead…According to International Federation of Robotics, nearly 180,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide in 2013, with a fifth of those sales being in China.

In 2013, China surpassed Japan for the first time to become the world’s biggest and fastest-growing robot market with sales of about 37,000 industrial robots .Experts predict that China’s robot market will grow to be more than one trillion yuan in a year or two. The Lucrative industry has attracted many investors who’re diving in. In Shanghai, a robot industrial park is currently under constructionan that’s expected to generate and send out around 60 billion yuan worth of products. Parks of the same scale are also being built in the cities of Shenyang, Qingdao and the municipality of Chongqing.

The reality is that there just isn’t enough high-paying work available in the private sector for the number of people that want to work, and that problem is only going to worsen over time. The answer isn’t just to rejigger trade and tax policy. The answer has to be a greater expansion of government-sponsored jobs, and disconnecting basic human dignity from the necessity of “having a job.”

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.