Advocates of stronger regulation of artificial intelligence have a long list of concerns and possible dangers backing up their argument, from short-term threats such as spreading believable misinformation to more existential far-off risks of superintelligent A.I. taking over humanity (or “going Terminator,” in Elon Musk’s words). A more medium-term fear is that A.I. will be one of the biggest job disrupters in recent history, with Goldman Sachs calculating in March the technology could soon replace the equivalent of 300 million jobs in the U.S. and Europe. But the peril of losing our jobs to A.I. could be undermined by another existential risk afflicting society, says former Google CEO and executive chairman Eric Schmidt: the developed world’s rapidly declining birth rate.
“Here are the facts. We are not having enough children, and we have not been having enough children for long enough that there is a demographic crisis where people who are my age are going to be taken care of by younger generations,” Schmidt said at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit in London Wednesday.
Schmidt pushed back against the “narrative” that new technologies are inevitably going to cause disruption and lead to widespread job loss, saying that when it comes to A.I., the net benefit will likely be positive because of enhanced efficiency and the technology’s ability to replace professions that are already getting harder to fill in a shrinking labor market.
In the U.S., a historically tight labor market could become even tighter in the coming decades as a result of fewer children being born. Aside from a pandemic-induced “baby bump” in 2021, U.S. fertility rates—the number of children each woman would be expected to have in her lifetime—has been on a mostly steady decline since the mid-2000s, including a record-breaking 4% drop in 2020.
Couples’ concerns about their finances, crushing student loan and credit card debt, and a greater focus on career are some of the reasons Americans are having fewer kids (another is that in more developed countries, the birth rate seems to be lower just out of choice alone). Similar shifts are happening in developed economies in Europe and East Asia, but the trend might have serious economic consequences in the years ahead. With baby boomers retiring in higher numbers every year, the dearth of young people to replace an aging workforce could lead to a demographic and labor crisis within the next few decades.
“In aggregate, all the demographics say there’s going to be a shortage of humans for jobs. Literally too many jobs and not enough people for at least the next 30 years,” Schmidt said.
Countries have proposed a number of policies to stave off the worst effects of a demographic crisis. China recently announced sweeping measures and incentives to reverse its population decline, including enhancing maternal health care services, granting 30 days of paid marriage leave in some provinces, and even discouraging abortions. Many countries are also looking overseas for workers, such as Japan—historically opposed to mixing up its labor force with too many foreign staff—which has in recent years loosened its entry requirements.
In the U.S., the population grew last year after almost flatlining in 2021, largely because of increased immigration. Several business leaders—including Google and Alphabet’s current CEO, India-born Sundar Pichai—have long argued that the U.S. should welcome more migrants to fill out its labor ranks.
A.I. might also have a crucial part to play in the country’s labor force struggles, especially for jobs that workers were already walking away from during the early pandemic’s Great Resignation owing to burnout and unsafe working conditions. History shows that technology tends to automatically fill the gaps created by worker shortages. A 2021 MIT study found that aging accounted for 35% of the adoption of robots and automation in different countries. The authors also argued that fast-aging countries that also invested heavily in their robotics industries such as Germany, South Korea, and Japan were seeing better labor market outcomes than the U.S.
Companies started tapping A.I. and automation technology years ago for jobs like truck driving and bartending, professions that many workers willingly walked away from during the pandemic. However, the recent pace of A.I. growth threatens to be far more immediate and pervasive, as a March study by ChatGPT creator OpenAI found that 80% of U.S. workers could have at least 10% of their jobs impacted by A.I. The risk A.I. poses to jobs was one of the reasons OpenAI CEO Sam Altman urged Congress to regulate A.I. during his testimony earlier this month.
Schmidt argued that A.I. would eventually become a tool for efficiency in the workforce, but while it may end up as a net-positive for the labor force, job losses in the near term might be inevitable.
“What really happens is that people like yourselves, in the business community and so forth, you’re about efficiency. Ultimately there will be lots of job conflagration, right? Some jobs are created, some jobs are lost.”