Printing Our Way To Negative Jobs Growth

by: Steven Hansen

Almost a year ago, I penned Advancing Towards A World Without Jobs concluding that robotic technology will relentlessly eliminate jobs.

Half a century ago futurists predicted a world to come where automation would eliminate the need for humans to do many jobs…. Somewhere between that time and the present someone forgot to plan how these "liberated" people would get enough money to be able to afford to "grow the human experience."

Economists continue to predict improvements in the rate of jobs growth based on historical data. I contend that overall employment will begin to decline before the end of this decade, and that political leaders need to begin now to re-gear the economy for world with fewer jobs.

When I wrote the original automation post, I did not consider 3D printing (the ability to literally "manufacture" parts on a one-off basis). A post this past week stated:

The 3D printing revolution is not a decade or more away - it's going to start showing up in mass production within the next five years. Despite skepticism, research demonstrates 3D manufacturing improvements combined with key patents will lead to a 79 percent reduction in average cost to print objects in five years, and a total of nearly 90 percent over the next 10 years.

3D printing is currently envisioned by futurists as the manufacture of components at the location of assembly and just when needed. This will eliminate jobs and much of imports and exports. I see 3D printing leading to the potential elimination of much of the goods production sector of the economy.

  • Who says that a complete product cannot be printed (like a TV or mobile phone)? It just means the "printer" needs more than one cartridge (like the difference between black-and-white and color printers). How many of the almost 12 million American manufacturing jobs will be eliminated? Globally, how many jobs will be eliminated when goods can simply be printed?
  • The supply chain will require almost no transport or warehousing. There will be little need for shipping when the product can be made locally on demand when needed. 35 million are now employed in these sectors of the economy. How many of these jobs will be gone?
  • Will Amazon and Wal-Mart just become print shops where you shop in front of a printing machine. How many of the 37 million involved in retail will no longer have jobs?
  • How fast employment dislocation caused by 3D printing begins will depend on the swiftness of the reduction "printing" costs.
  • What happens if the costs get so low that the average Joe can afford a printer in his house? The ripple effect across the economy could affect most segments of employment and the way society is organized. Will people's jobs be growing the food because goods will almost be free? Could this reverse a century old migration from the country to the city.

I believe that employment drives GDP in a consumer based economy, and the current economic weakness is a result of poor employment dynamics as technology advances are destroying nearly the same amount of jobs that are being created. This is evidenced by jobs growth following a major recession barely keeping up with population growth - and well below the growth experienced following previous recession.

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There are growing headwinds (caused by automation, robotics) which in a short period of time will have jobs growth well under population growth, but politicians and economists are not yet reacting to the change in dynamics. There are social issues to deal with when the economy cannot grow jobs.

Are there solutions? I see some but they carry poison to a capitalistic and consumption based economy. I am counting on those smarter than me to engineer an acceptable social and economic solution. Would the government paying people to spit at the moon create an inefficient economy? Being able to produce much of what a population needs with only a small number of that population employed creates a confounding dilemma.

My normal weekly economic summary is in my instablog.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.