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January 23, 2013

NATION: Recession, tech kill middle-class jobs

NEW YORK — Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the toll is terrifyingly clear: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost in developed countries the world over.

And the situation is even worse than it appears.

Most of the jobs will never return, and millions more are likely to vanish as well, say experts who study the labor market. What’s more, these jobs aren’t just being lost to China and other developing countries, and they aren’t just factory work. Increasingly, jobs are disappearing in the service sector, home to two-thirds of all workers.

They’re being obliterated by technology.

Year after year, the software that runs computers and an array of other machines and devices becomes more sophisticated and powerful and capable of doing more efficiently tasks that humans have always done. For decades, science fiction warned of a future when we would be architects of our own obsolescence, replaced by our machines; an Associated Press analysis finds that the future has arrived.

“The jobs that are going away aren’t coming back,” says Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of “Race Against the Machine.” “I have never seen a period where computers demonstrated as many skills and abilities as they have over the past seven years.”

The global economy is being reshaped by machines that generate and analyze vast amounts of data; by devices such as smartphones and tablet computers that let people work just about anywhere, even when they’re on the move; by smarter, nimbler robots; and by services that let businesses rent computing power when they need it, instead of installing expensive equipment and hiring IT staffs to run it. Whole employment categories, from secretaries to travel agents, are starting to disappear.

“There’s no sector of the economy that’s going to get a pass,” says Martin Ford, who runs a software company and wrote “The Lights in the Tunnel,” a book predicting widespread job losses. “It’s everywhere.”

The numbers startle even labor economists. In the United States, half the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession were in industries that pay middle-class wages, ranging from $38,000 to $68,000. But only 2 percent of the 3.5 million jobs gained since the recession ended in June 2009 are in midpay industries. Nearly 70 percent are in low-pay industries, 29 percent in industries that pay well. 

In the 17 European countries that use the euro as their currency, the numbers are even worse. Almost 4.3 million low-pay jobs have been gained since mid-2009, but the loss of midpay jobs has never stopped. A total of 7.6 million disappeared from January 2008 through last June.

Experts warn that this “hollowing out” of the middle-class workforce is far from over. They predict the loss of millions more jobs as technology becomes even more sophisticated and reaches deeper into our lives. Maarten Goos, an economist at the University of Leuven in Belgium, says Europe could double its middle-class job losses.

Some occupations are beneficiaries of the march of technology, such as software engineers and app designers for smartphones and tablet computers. Overall, though, technology is eliminating far more jobs than it is creating.

To understand the impact technology is having on middle-class jobs in developed countries, the AP analyzed employment data from 20 countries; tracked changes in hiring by industry, pay and task; compared job losses and gains during recessions and expansions over the past four decades; and interviewed economists, technology experts, robot manufacturers, software developers, entrepreneurs and people in the labor force who ranged from CEOs to the unemployed.

The AP’s key findings:

—For more than three decades, technology has reduced the number of jobs in manufacturing. Robots and other machines controlled by computer programs work faster and make fewer mistakes than humans. Now, that same efficiency is being unleashed in the service economy, which employs more than two-thirds of the workforce in developed countries. Technology is eliminating jobs in office buildings, retail establishments and other businesses consumers deal with every day.

—Technology is being adopted by every kind of organization that employs people. It’s replacing workers in large corporations and small businesses, established companies and start-ups. It’s being used by schools, colleges and universities; hospitals and other medical facilities; nonprofit organizations and the military.

—The most vulnerable workers are doing repetitive tasks that programmers can write software for — an accountant checking a list of numbers, an office manager filing forms, a paralegal reviewing documents for key words to help in a case. As software becomes even more sophisticated, victims are expected to include those who juggle tasks, such as supervisors and managers — workers who thought they were protected by a college degree.

—Thanks to technology, companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index reported one-third more profit the past year than they earned the year before the Great Recession. They’ve also expanded their businesses, but total employment, at 21.1 million, has declined by a half-million.

—Start-ups account for much of the job growth in developed economies, but software is allowing entrepreneurs to launch businesses with a third fewer employees than in the 1990s. There is less need for administrative support and back-office jobs that handle accounting, payroll and benefits.

—It’s becoming a self-serve world. Instead of relying on someone else in the workplace or our personal lives, we use technology to do tasks ourselves. Some find this frustrating; others like the feeling of control. Either way, this trend will only grow as software permeates our lives.

—Technology is replacing workers in developed countries regardless of their politics, policies and laws. Union rules and labor laws may slow the dismissal of employees, but no country is attempting to prohibit organizations from using technology that allows them to operate more efficiently — and with fewer employees.

Some analysts reject the idea that technology has been a big job killer. They note that the collapse of the housing market in the U.S., Ireland, Spain and other countries and the ensuing global recession wiped out millions of middle-class construction and factory jobs. In their view, governments could bring many of the jobs back if they would put aside worries about their heavy debts and spend more. Others note that jobs continue to be lost to China, India and other countries in the developing world.

But to the extent technology has played a role, it raises the specter of high unemployment even after economic growth accelerates. Some economists say millions of middle-class workers must be retrained to do other jobs if they hope to get work again. Others are more hopeful. They note that technological change over the centuries eventually has created more jobs than it destroyed, though the wait can be long and painful.

A common refrain: The developed world may face years of high middle-class unemployment, social discord, divisive politics, falling living standards and dashed hopes.

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