How automation and globalisation has killed the middle-class


By Leith van Onselen

From the IMF Direct blog comes an interesting analysis of the declining share of income going to workers, which is being driven by automation and globalisation:

After being largely stable in many countries for decades, the share of national income paid to workers has been falling since the 1980s. Chapter 3 of the April 2017 World Economic Outlook finds that this trend is driven by rapid progress in technology and global integration.

Labor’s share of income declines when wages grow more slowly than productivity, or the amount of output per hour of work. The result is that a growing fraction of productivity gains has been going to capital. And since capital tends to be concentrated in the upper ends of the income distribution, falling labor income shares are likely to raise income inequality…

In advanced economies, labor income shares began trending down in the 1980s. They reached their lowest level of the past half century just prior to the global financial crisis of 2008, and have not recovered materially since. Labor income shares now are almost 4 percentage points lower than they were in 1970…

Indeed, as growth remains subpar in many countries, an increasing recognition that the gains from growth have not been broadly shared has strengthened a backlash against economic integration and bolstered support in favor of inward-looking policies. This is especially the case in several advanced economies…

In advanced economies, about half of the decline in labor shares can be traced to the impact of technology. The decline was driven by a combination of rapid progress in information and telecommunication technology, and a high share of occupations that could be easily be automated.

Global integration—as captured by trends in final goods trade, participation in global value chains, and foreign direct investment—also played a role. Its contribution is estimated at about half that of technology. Because participation in global value chains typically implies offshoring of labor-intensive tasks, the effect of integration is to lower labor shares in tradable sectors… Taken together, technology and global integration explain close to 75 percent of the decline in labor shares in Germany and Italy, and close to 50 percent in the United States…

Another key finding of our research is that the decline in labor shares in advanced economies has been particularly sharp for middle-skilled labor. Routine-biased technology has taken over many of the tasks performed by these workers, contributing to job polarization toward high-skilled and low-skilled occupations.

This “hollowing-out” phenomenon has been reinforced by global integration, as firms in advanced economies increasingly have access to a global labor supply through cross-border value chains…

Sadly, Australian workers has fared badly against their Advanced Nation counterparts. As shown recently by Greg Jericho, Australia’s decline in wages’ share of GDP has been particularly steep:

ScreenHunter_16360 Nov. 29 13.36

In 1975, two thirds of Australia’s GDP was in the form of wages, whereas in 2014 it was just 53%.

The below charts, which come from the ABS National Accounts, illustrates the decline in Australian workers’ shares.


First, the growth in average employee earnings is the lowest on record:

And has failed dismally to keep pace with growing labour productivity:


Meanwhile, the share of total factor income going to workers (as opposed to business owners) has been falling for decades:


While the elites continue to sell us the economic virtues of globalisation and mass immigration, the gains are flowing primarily to the wealthy owners of land and capital, who get to privatisation the gains and socialise the losses.

Ordinary workers, by contrast, have been largely left behind, experiencing weak income growth, rising debt levels, deteriorating housing affordability, worsening congestion, and overall declining livability.

These factors, above all others, help to explain the rise of fringe political movements like Brexit, Donald Trump, and One Nation at home. It’s a class war.


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About the author
Leith van Onselen is Chief Economist at the MB Fund and MB Super. He is also a co-founder of MacroBusiness. Leith has previously worked at the Australian Treasury, Victorian Treasury and Goldman Sachs.