Super Cool New Device Won’t Fix the Economy

Apple just unveiled its new watch (called the Apple Watch no less) and briefly I watched the stock price climb quickly as the promise of Apple’s great new thing came to life. But before Apple had its big webcast yesterday, I was actually having a look at this nifty thing called NAVDY.

NAVDY seems like a great idea and its one of many many great things that is regularly and constantly being developed by an increasingly connected world that funds great ideas through websites like kickstarter.com. But like many new great things that I see, most of them won’t dramatically change the economy in any significant way. Specifically, none of these new businesses will create a great number of new jobs.

This may seem like a small point to quibble over, however when we look through the prominent industries that tend to occupy the business sections of newspapers, like Apple Computers, you begin to realize that very few of these businesses do much in the way of employment. Improvements in productivity, automation and robotics continue to eat away at an industrial base that forces young people into retail sectors, and an older generation into early retirement.

More people are employed in Canada year-over-year, however it has involved net losses in high employment sectors combined with net gains in high-education sectors.

More people are employed in Canada year-over-year, however it has involved net losses in high employment sectors combined with net gains in high-education sectors. Many of the jobs that employ lots of Canadians present opportunities for automation. Click on the image to view a larger version.

From Stats-Can - the widening gap in unemployment spells. Being employed in manufacturing meant you could be out of work longer in Canada than in non-manufacturing based jobs.

From Stats-Can – the widening gap in unemployment spells. Being employed in manufacturing meant you could be out of work longer in Canada than in non-manufacturing based jobs.

Where there were once middle class factory jobs for thousands of Canadians they are now increasingly rare, and often exist through substantial subsidization from the provincial or federal government.

This story isn’t new. In fact it’s so old now that the first real impact of it dates back to the 1980s. But as time marches on and we are increasingly numb to this reality it may have escaped our attention just how great a challenge this is posing to our society.

For instance, today, Vox.com posted an article about “Why you need a bachelor’s degree to be a secretary“, focusing on how many jobs are “up-credentialing”.

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Industrial decline also plays an indirect role in rising housing markets in cities. It’s easy to see that falling employment in traditionally well paying blue-collar sectors may contribute to higher crime rates and stagnant wages, but it also tells us where it makes the most sense to live. Young Canadians finishing university are unlikely to move back to Windsor when the best jobs are now in Toronto, fuelling a condo boom while raising housing prices across the city to the point of being unaffordable to new families.

From the Economist, January 18, 2014: Briefing: The Future of Jobs - Retail services continue to grow as other market sectors decline.

From the Economist, January 18, 2014: Briefing: The Future of Jobs – Retail services continue to grow as other market sectors decline.

All of this speaks to a larger and more looming issue for Canadians, which is that continued improvements in automation place long term pressure on things like infrastructure and wealth distribution and raise other questions about middle class viability. In other words, we seem eager to introduce new technologies into our lives, but each of these technologies doesn’t just reduce jobs, they reduce jobs that employ lots of people. The January 18th, 2014 Economist ran a frightening story about this kind of automation and that up to 47% of existing jobs could come under pressure by new forms of cost effective robotics and computers.

It’s often hard to see changes that are incrementally slow, but changes are occurring, and over the coming years and decades these changes will likely shake out in ways that we aren’t expecting. But for Canadians looking to save and retire in the future, many of these trends are coming together in worrying ways. In the form of higher educational costs, more limited job opportunities, higher costs of living and potential unemployability, and sadly the new industries and businesses we are quick to promote won’t likely be enough to stave off a society that is undergoing a significant shift in how it employs people.

All of this is a lot to explain in a single article. But if you’d like a simple video that does a good job of scaring you, please watch this video by Youtuber CPG Grey, whose excellent video from a few weeks ago got widely picked up and shared on the web. Otherwise, if you’d like to talk about getting set-up with a savings plan, either for yourselves and kids please give me a call!

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