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Is the labor shortages here to stay?

Henry Craver's picture
Small Business Owner , Self-employed

As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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  • Jan 16, 2023

Thomas Robert Malthus couldn’t have been more wrong. In his now infamous 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population,  the English scholar argued that mankind was doomed to suffer increasingly severe and frequent famines as the population grew exponentially and food production failed to keep pace. Luckily, that didn’t happen. A couple hundred years later and with billions of more people on the planet, famines are much less frequent and severe than they were when Malthus’ theory was published. 

However, Malthus was no dummy. In fact, he was a skilled empiricist, it's just that the empirical data that existed up to that point was quite deceiving: Population booms caused famines. The problem with Malthusian theory was that it didn’t take into account technological innovation. The industrial revolution changed farming, allowing humans to get more food from the same plots of land. So the world’s population boomed, but famines actually decreased. 

When it comes to an aging population, the empirical data is also quite clear: Economic growth stagnates when a population ages. Here’s how Wikipedia explains the phenomena:

“As a country's population declines, GDP growth may grow even more slowly or may even decline.  If the decline in total population is not matched by an equal or greater increase in productivity (GDP/capita), and if that condition continues from one calendar quarter to the next, it follows that a country would experience a decline in GDP, known as an economic recession.  If these conditions become permanent, the country could find itself in a permanent recession.”

This is what we’ve seen time and time again, from Japan to Italy. 

What’s so concerning about the connection between population decline and economic stagnation, is that many of the world’s developed countries now have aging populations, not just Japan and Italy. This is part of the reason behind the labor shortage that’s plagued many economies since 2020. Here’s how the emerging trend is summed up in this We Forum article:

"In developed economies, such as the United States, Canada, Italy, Germany, Japan, Australia, United Kingdom and France, the generational bulge of Baby Boomers is ageing out of the workforce and moving into retirement. Smaller succeeding generations mean that there are fewer people available to fill these newly vacant roles. Stereotypes about what manufacturing work is like, a mismatch of skills needed versus skills possessed and increasing pressure for young adults to pursue college degrees in lieu of entering the workforce, all contribute to the lack of workers in critical jobs.

For years, this problem was often addressed by offshoring manufacturing to lower-cost countries. But now even manufacturing powerhouses, such as China, India, Taiwan, Bangladesh and Vietnam, along with Argentina, Colombia, and Turkey, are experiencing worker shortages and a discrepancy of skills that threaten a variety of industries. In Thailand, 500,000 more migrant workers from neighbouring countries are needed to fill roles in food processing, construction and agriculture. Poland also faces pressure as the nearby war has kept Ukrainian migrants from working in Polish factories. Around the globe, declining birthrates ensure that this shortage will remain a persistent issue."

But does demographic decline doom us to persistent labor shortages and other economic problems as a consequence? This scenario is possible, but it’s also possible that technological innovation will solve our problems, the same way modern farming got us out of the Malthusian catastrophe. 

If robots can take people’s jobs, then they can also fill in for people when there is a labor shortage. The better robots get, the more jobs they will be able to do. Similarly, new digital technologies will allow people to do jobs they previously couldn’t have. This is most clear in manufacturing and other traditionally physically demanding jobs that handicapped people weren’t able to do. Companies like Phantom Auto Tech make products that allow physically limited people to do warehouse jobs, often from the comfort of their living rooms. 

I don’t think anyone knows for certain what will come of the current labor shortages around the world and in different industries. It’s also possible that technological advances eventually mitigate the consequences of demographic decline, but only after a decade or so of economic hardship. However, in the wake of Chat GPT, I wouldn’t bet against a technological miracle this decade. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 16, 2023

One way or the other, we're going to look back at this time period-- of post-COVID, of highly work from home, and other evolutions-- as a pivot point in how the industry and the economy as a whole functions!

Mark Allen's picture
Mark Allen on Jan 23, 2023

I see 2 paths. Yes, the tech path will be heavily explored, but there is another we can and should take. The article mentions a skills mismatch, that people are making the choice to attend college in lieu of entering the workforce. Much can be said about why employers look for college on a resume, but the biggest reason is simple: a high school diploma doesn't mean anything. It no longer tells anyone that a person can actually read or perform routine math. Today, the only way an employer can know that the applicant has at least the minimum to be employed at all is to see at least some education beyond the diploma. IMO, we have the people who can fill any position that can be posted, but we don't have those people who are properly educated to fill them. Of course, the hard truth is that not everyone will be able to achieve a high school diploma if we truly bring it up to what modern society needs. However, to not do this is to sacrifice the futures of those who can achieve it and likely the future of our nation. 

Henry Craver's picture
Thank Henry for the Post!
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