Still, in January, Walmart—benefiting from an enormous corporate tax break under Donald Trump’s tax reform—said it would raise its starting hourly wage to $11 (around $19,000 a year for 34-hour weeks), hand out bonuses, and provide more benefits to full-time employees. Low-wage workers seemed to be gaining power amid a tight labor market.
In fact, as its strategy unfolds, it seems that Walmart may cultivate a relatively smaller, better-compensated core of employees who are supplemented by automation and a flexible cadre of gig-economy workers. Ten years from now, “there will be fewer associates in the Walmart store ... and we will see the wage rate continue to go up,” Walmart’s chief executive Doug McMillon told The Economic Club of New York in November. “What we would love, not just for Walmart but for retail, is to earn a better reputation about the jobs themselves.”
Given high turnover in retail, McMillon said, Walmart expects to eliminate jobs mostly through attrition. As it automates tedious tasks, such as finding inventory in the back room, it expects to offer jobs that pay more, such as customer service and merchandising.
In all of this, Walmart is trying to adapt to the rapid growth of Amazon, which reported almost $178 billion in revenue last year—about $315,000 per employee. Walmart is much larger, with $500 billion in annual revenue, but because it employs about four times as many people, that revenue amounts to just $217,000 per employee. (According to the Wall Street Journal, Walmart is in early talks with the insurer Humana about possible business relationships such as an acquisition, which would be a way to diversify away from the retail business where it competes with Amazon.) The changes to Walmart’s business model could be particularly hard on young people who seek retail work. People between the ages of 16 to 24 account for 23 percent of retail workers, nearly double their overall representation in the U.S. workforce. Not all of them can make a seamless shift into the gig economy; Uber, for example, requires workers to be at least 21 years old, and they have to use a four-door car that meets company standards.
It’s been ten years since the Pixar animated movie “Wall-E” depicted oversized humans exiled into space, catered to by robots and floating in armchairs like leaden balloons, far above Earth’s ruined landscape. A decade ago, the fictional villainous corporation Buy N Large was seen as a thinly veiled satire of Walmart. Today, some suggest Amazon is a more apt comparison. Perhaps before any of these companies eats the whole world, another competitor will rise to take its place. In any case, as Autor, Naidu, and their colleagues suggest, we should worry more about working ever harder to keep up than we should about being shoved aside by our robot overlords.