The Robots Are Coming, and Sweden Is Fine

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Eighty percent of Swedes express positive views about robots and artificial intelligence, according to a survey this year by the European Commission. By contrast, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that 72 percent of Americans were “worried” about a future in which robots and computers substitute for humans.

In the United States, where most people depend on employers for health insurance, losing a job can trigger a descent to catastrophic depths. It makes workers reluctant to leave jobs to forge potentially more lucrative careers. It makes unions inclined to protect jobs above all else.

Yet in Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia, governments provide health care along with free education. They pay generous unemployment benefits, while employers finance extensive job training programs. Unions generally embrace automation as a competitive advantage that makes jobs more secure.

Making the United States more like Scandinavia would entail costs that collide with the tax-cutting fervor that has dominated American politics in recent decades.

Sweden, Denmark and Finland all spend more than 27 percent of their annual economic output on government services to help jobless people and other vulnerable groups, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The United States devotes less than 20 percent of its economy to such programs.

Safety Nets Compared

Scandinavian countries are among the biggest spenders on unemployment benefits, health care and parental leave, whereas the United States spends less than the average on its social safety nets.

Public social spending as a share of G.D.P.

Netherlands

Luxembourg

O.E.C.D. avg.

Switzerland

New Zealand

Czech Republic

United States

South Korea

For Swedish businesses, these outlays yield a key dividend: Employees have proved receptive to absorbing new technology.

This is especially crucial in mining, a major industry in Sweden. Wages are high, with pay and working conditions set through national contracts negotiated by unions and employers’ associations. Boliden’s mines have some of the world’s lowest-grade ore, meaning it contains minute quantities of valuable minerals. The prices are set by global markets.

“We have every reason not to be competitive,” says Boliden’s chief executive, Lennart Evrell.

The only way for the company to ensure profit is to continually increase efficiency. This is why Mr. Persson and his co-workers in the control room will soon be operating as many as four loaders at once via joysticks.

Photo

The Garpenberg mine in 1966. It has been in operation more or less since 1257. Credit Boliden

The company is pressing ahead with plans to deploy self-driving trucks, testing a system with AB Volvo, the Swedish automotive giant, at a mine in the town of Kristineberg. There, Boliden has expanded annual production to close to 600,000 tons from about 350,000 tons three decades ago — while the work force has remained about 200.

“If we don’t move forward with the technology and making money, well, then we are out of business,” says Magnus Westerlund, 35, vice chairman of a local union chapter representing laborers at two Boliden mines. “You don’t need a degree in math to do the calculation.”

At the mine below the frigid pine forests in Garpenberg, 110 miles northwest of Stockholm, Mr. Persson and his co-workers earn about 500,000 krona per year (nearly $60,000). They get five weeks of vacation. Under Swedish law, when a child arrives, the parents have 480 days of family leave to apportion between them. No robot is going to change any of that, Mr. Persson says.

“It’s a Swedish kind of thinking,” says Erik Lundstrom, a 41-year-old father of two who works alongside Mr. Persson. “If you do something for the company, the company gives something back.”

Daunting Job Projections

That proposition now confronts a formidable test. No one knows how many jobs are threatened by robots and other forms of automation, but projections suggest a potential shock.

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