I am writing this the day after Bitcoin’s price topped $11,000 for the first time.
What does that mean?
That’s very hard to say, but give it a month or so, and that price quote may put this post into context even more effectively than a date line.
Whether Bitcoin is developing a speculative bubble, or these days prove in retrospect to be the last chance to buy it “cheap” before it hits, say, $40,000 (also predicted in today’s headlines), is anybody’s guess.
Another equally perplexing headline is from a fresh report from business analysis and management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, which predicts between 400,000,000 and 800,000,000 jobs are to be lost to robots worldwide by 2030.
That’s right: up to 800 million jobs lost.
Not that those numbers should be surprising.
We’ve already got AI reading our emails and automating various previously humans-only jobs, while digital self-service kiosks are now a familiar part of the McDonald’s experience. These have been accepted with a shrug, and represent what must be the thin end of the wedge.
Happily, the McKinsey report highlights the fact that as some jobs are displaced, fresh demand will be created for re-tooled and re-trained workers, which McKinsey figures will offset a good chunk of the job losses. Whether those multitudes of displaced workers will want fresh jobs in gardening and elderly care -- just two of the examples cited as among the many fresh new jobs to look forward to – is another issue altogether.
So whether we’re all destined for robot-induced unemployment, or robot-assisted early retirement, it’s too soon to say. But it is not controversial to expect to see the continuing, incremental (if not exponential) expansion of the role of various “smart” technologies across all aspects of our lives.
There is also little doubt that those technologies are double edged: the tech innovations that help to make one worker more productive is the same tech that squeezes their former colleague out of a job.
Inevitably, this will have implications for international labour mobility.
And, what is worse, whether we really are facing a robot invasion may prove to be irrelevant.
The Immigration Policy Shuffle
As we’ve said here before, immigration policy is the canary in the coalmine of domestic political turmoil. It’s a predictable, three-step dance:
(1) The domestic economy of (Country A) hits a rough patch,
(2) Local politicians start saying things like “American jobs for American workers” (Trump), “Australian jobs for Australian workers” (Turnbull), etc., targeting “cheap foreign labour” as a culprit, and
(3) Calls for protectionist trade barriers, and fresh limits on immigration, ensue.
As we recently wrote here, we’ve seen all of three steps on parade over the course of 2017.
Add a few “The Robots Are Coming” headlines, and you’ve got one more reason for politicians to clamp down on what they can now point to as an unnecessary influx of foreign workers.
Bear in mind, of course, that political debate does not require rational underpinnings, just sufficient popular support (see e.g., Brexit, Trump). And targeting skilled foreign workers, who aren’t the problem, is a lot easier than crafting sensible, forward-looking responses to our changing work environment.
Bear in mind as well that domestic voters by definition are not ever foreign workers. Whereas many if not most of those voters will be wondering if there is a tech lab in Silicon Valley developing an AI that will eat their jobs.
Throw in an economic wobble, and “sensible immigration reform” will quickly become a matter of the highest political priority in political forums around the world.
For immigration policy, this could prove to be a game changer.
Robots Don't Need Visas
Variations of the ‘skilled worker visa’ are among the most accessible visas for desirable destinations from Australia to Canada.
Indeed, for many individuals and families, skilled worker visas represent the only opportunity for them to emigrate to a destination with higher living standards and better life prospects.
Those visas are available today. But if that’s your only route, don’t count on these being around indefinitely. Changes can come quickly, and without warning: just ask anyone who holds or planned to acquire an Australian 457 visa.
Are the robots going to wipe out skilled worker visas as quickly as they devour our jobs?
We’ll let you draw your own conclusions, though we suspect you might have a better chance predicting the peak price of Bitcoin.
However, if you know you want to go, there’s no sense waiting to find out for certain.