There are a lot of things robots can do, but they cannot make societies any younger.
Canada and the U.S. are aging – there is little debate about that. What exactly that will mean for the labor force and the economy is a bit more up for grabs, but to get an idea of how it may all play out we have the examples of those areas that have already gotten old ahead of us. One such area is East Germany, a town from which is profiled in this article from The Economist.
East Germany, if it was an actual separate country from West Germany, would apparently be the oldest country in the world. That is, at present Germany and Japan each have a median age of close to 47, but East Germany is indisputably older still. Following the installation of the Berlin Wall in 1989, young people headed for the west, leaving a smaller population to have families. The Economist quotes an official from a German think tank who puts what is going on rather succinctly: ‘kids not born in the ‘90s, also didn’t have kids in the 2010s. It’s the echo of the echo’. With deaths far out-pacing births, Germany as a whole is headed to having 40 percent of its population aged over 60 by 2050, with East Germany getting there first.
In the town profiled in the article, one apartment building in five is empty, and where two-thirds of kindergartens and over half of all schools have closed since 1990. There is a dearth of workers, particularly young workers, in the area. Not surprisingly, the biggest shortage is of those who are available to work in health care. particularly as it relates to the old. Immigration has filled some gaps, although refugees are not necessarily taking the available jobs, and tend to leave anyway. As one inventive solution, a local training school is arranging to have young people study German in Vietnam and then head into apprenticeship positions in the area. Were it not for measures such as that, small towns would potentially shrink even further and possibly be abandoned all together.
Are there lessons for North America here? Certainly there is a potential warning of how things might play out if more workers are not found. In Canada’s Atlantic provinces, for example, aging is happening more quickly than it is elsewhere, especially in non-metropolitan areas. That is already straining government budgets which are facing the reality of fewer tax-paying workers and stronger draws on health care services. In Canada and in many countries things may well get worse. After all, it is an old equation: you grow an economy through population growth, and through productivity. If population growth is not there, all things being equal that means you grow less quickly. If East Germany does end up short of 5 to 7 million workers by 2030, as some experts predict, then economic growth is certainly going to suffer.
Or is it? To me, the wildcard in all of this is the impact of technology, something that is not really mentioned in the article. After all, apprentice humans will not be needed if ready-out-of-the-box robots actually replace the need for many job functions. That is a concept that is not as far in the future that many of us may like to consider. According to one study from the University of Oxford, about half of all jobs are vulnerable to being replaced by automation. Analyses from the Bank of England and the World Economic Federation (WEF) have reached similar conclusions. No one knows exactly the final figure or the pace of how it will happen in different countries, but it is certain that some job functions will not be needed in future, although in previous industrial revolutions (this one, according to the WEF is the fourth) other jobs have sprung up to replace them. Regardless, the absolute shortages of workers in East Germany or in North America may turn out to be less severe than sometimes predicted. That may not help individual workers keep up their standard of living, but it will keep industries running and promote overall growth.
Then again, even if technology replaces the need for some workers, it will not make up for the fact that societies will be populated by old, and getting older, people. Whatever happens in terms of technology, the reality is that many schools will indeed need to be turned into care homes sooner rather than later. Even if robots are able to staff some of those homes, they will not change the fact our societies will have a different overall vibe.
Robots will not judge whether the vibe from an older society is better or worse than the one we have today, and perhaps no one else should either.