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Tech Security Column: Energy shifts, job losses and political responses – Reuters UK


Tech Security Column: Energy shifts, job losses and political responses – Reuters UK

LONDON (Reuters) – Like other technology shifts, energy transitions provoke strong responses because they involve changes in lives and livelihoods, that go far beyond narrow technical questions about the source and delivery of energy.A solar power plant is seen past wind turbines in Canino, central Italy, April 27, 2016. REUTERS/Max RossiTransitions disrupt employment and incomes,…

Tech Security Column: Energy shifts, job losses and political responses – Reuters UK

Tech Security

LONDON (Reuters) – Like other technology shifts, energy shifts provoke strong actions since they include modifications in lives and incomes, that go far beyond narrow technical questions about the source and delivery of energy.

A solar energy plant is seen past wind turbines in Canino, main Italy, April 27,2016 REUTERS/Max Rossi

Shifts interrupt employment and earnings, enforcing significant and focused expenses on specific families, markets and communities. They create huge losers in addition to winners.

And due to the fact that energy supply is amongst the largest companies and a lot of basic of all markets, providing input for each other sector of the economy, shifts are among the most disruptive of all innovation modifications.

Even if a shift is a Pareto improvement from the perspective of society as a whole, where the winners might in theory compensate the losers, considerable compensating transfers seldom occur in practice.

More frequently, the losers from a modification in energy system or other innovation are expected to discover new work, changing market and in some cases location, with minimal monetary support.

So transitions are normally talked about in relatively technical terms: relative expenses, dependability, supply security, visual impact, air pollution and carbon emissions.

However they arouse strong political, emotional and ethical passions because behind every technical discussion lies a much deeper, often concealed, dispute about reallocation of earnings and chances.

Transitions are never just about expense, benefit and security; they are constantly about individual lives and neighborhoods too. They are inherently political in addition to technical.


Many energy and innovation transitions play out slowly, over durations ranging from a number of decades to half a century. However that is still fairly fast compared to a typical working life time.

In the sophisticated economies, the average working lifetime is a little over 40 years for both males and females (” Aging and work policies”, Company for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2020).

In the United States, somebody who started operating in a world dominated by horse-drawn transport and railways in the 1890 s would have retired in a world dominated by cars and trucks in the 1930 s.

Someone who began operating in the 1890 s without electricity in your home, telephone service, water and sewage, radio and refrigeration would have retired when these things prevailed, at least in metropolitan locations.

In Britain, somebody who started working in a world controlled by coal in the 1940 s would have retired in a world dominated by oil in the 1980 s.

In China, the economic change over the 40 years from the early 1980 s to the early 2020 s has been a lot more extensive in every dimension.

Looking forward, somebody who started work in the 2010 s in a world dominated by oil, coal and gas might retire in a world controlled by renewables in the 2050 s.


Over the last 2 centuries, changes in energy systems and other innovations have actually eliminated 10s of countless tasks, initially in farming, then mining, and more recently producing.

While the changes have increased productivity and incomes in general, they have inflicted considerable distress on people, companies and neighborhoods.

Whole professions have actually vanished: weavers, stokers, lamplighters, elevator operators, movie theater musicians, typists and laundresses.

Other significant professions have actually “released” massive volumes of labour as they increased output per hour and became more productive: farming, coal mining, railroads, shipping, stevedoring, and steelmaking.

In the long run, energy system and innovation modifications have actually increased economy-wide productivity and made everyone better off. However the long run can surpass the rest of any one individual’s lifetime.

In the short and medium term, energy and technology changes have often made large groups of once-comfortable workers worse off (” The technology trap: capital, labor and power in the age of automation”, Frey, 2019).


In theory, workers displaced from an industry where employment is decreasing, either as a result of falling intake of the product or a boost in labour-saving automation, can look for employment elsewhere.

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In practice, workers are frequently connected to specific occupations and even more to geographical locations, and reveal a marked hesitation to change careers or move looking for brand-new work.

Occupational mobility is most often to new jobs in closely connected or surrounding markets– which is very little assistance when employment in a whole complex of related industries enters into decline.

Workers reveal even less mobility geographically. Social ties to communities make long-distance irreversible migration looking for work relatively uncommon for employees above the age of 30 or 40.

In Britain, desire to transfer to a new area for work peaked in the 25-29 age group and decreased afterwards, according to a UK government report released in 1966 (” Regional advancement”, Fisk and Jones, 1972).

The very same locational stickiness is still evident today in the United States. In 2018/19, some 3.5%of 25-29 year-olds moved to a different state, compared to just 1.5%of 35-39 years of age and 0.9%of 45-49 year olds.

In the United States, which was once characterised by relatively high levels of geographical mobility compared with Europe, inter-state and inter-regional movements have actually decreased over the last 50 years.

Less than 1.5%of citizens of any ages moved state in 2018/19 below more than 3%per year throughout the 1950 s and 1960 s.

( Chartbook: 3kia05 i)

Occupational and geographical immobility matters since heavy industries, including energy industries, are frequently focused in a little number of neighborhoods, where they provide a big share of total work.

Decline of a market and its work is for that reason typically synonymous with a deterioration of the local economy and an increase in deprivation.


The individuals most at risk from energy transitions and other shifts in innovation are those aged over 35 and specifically those over 45 and 55 years old.

Some 15-35 years after they initially got in a market after graduating from school or university, slowly accumulating technical modifications are most likely to be remaking the industry and its employment.

But by that stage in their working life time, those people will have invested substantially in industry-specific abilities and experience that may not easily transfer at the same income to another market.

And their geographical mobility likewise decreases progressively above the age of 35, compounding the difficulty of changing from an area controlled by declining markets to one characterised by broadening sectors.

Like other technology changes, the risks associated with energy shifts are borne disproportionately by older, more experienced employees at mid-career or a little beyond.

Younger employees are more likely to switch industry. Older workers are most likely to take early retirement or try to stick on for a couple of more years.

The vulnerability of specific groups of employees, frequently focused in specific communities and areas, is what has constantly made energy shifts politically sensitive.

However political level of sensitivity has hardly ever been enough to stop an energy or innovation shift, though it might slow the process by a couple of years, buying a bit of additional time for an area of the workforce.

John Kemp is a Reuters market expert. The views expressed are his own.

Related column:

International energy transition is already well underway(Reuters, Sept. 11)

Modifying by Susan Fenton)

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