The skilled worker contest will worsen without degrowth


Net migration for New Zealand in the year ending July 2023 was 96,000. Many of these were skilled workers. The OECD countries are apparently all competing for skilled immigrants and between them account for two-thirds of skilled worker migrants globally.

But why? Is it something to do with the increasing complexity of industrial civilisation? Add the poverty gap between the North and the South? How does the increasing complexity of civilisation fit with degrowther’s demand for declining energy and material throughput? And what other factors are at play?

Migration and Economic Factors: High-skilled immigration is becoming a key driver of population growth, particularly in New Zealand. As a percentage of its population in June 2022 the increase in population due to net migration was 1.18%. Only Australia, Canada and Turkey had similarly high percentages. 

These immigrants bring valuable expertise and help sustain the workforce, particularly in sectors like healthcare, technology, and construction.

Migrations often result from a combination of factors, including the pursuit of better economic opportunities and the desire to escape challenging circumstances in home countries.

The Evolution of the Workforce: From 1970 to 2020

The world of work has undergone remarkable transformations in the last half-century. So let’s explore how the workforce has evolved, with a focus on the increasing complexity of jobs. From the traditional skill sets of the 1970s to the knowledge-based workforce of the 2020s, the changes have been profound.

A Look Back at 1970: Few Skilled Workers in the Workforce

In the 1970s, the workforce had a distinctly different character compared to today. Back then, jobs were often defined by traditional skill sets. It was an era when manufacturing and manual labour played a central role in many economies.

Traditional Skills of the 1970s Workforce

Workers of the 1970s were valued for their proficiency in traditional skills. These skills often revolved around physical labour, craftsmanship, and routine tasks. Carpenters, machinists, and assembly line workers were the backbone of the workforce.

The Manufacturing Dominance: Labour Skills of the Past

Manufacturing industries were at the forefront during this period. Workers in factories operated machinery, assembled products, and performed repetitive tasks. The demand for specific manual skills was high.

A Simpler Workforce: How Jobs Were Defined in 1970

Jobs were relatively straightforward in their requirements. Management provided on-the-job training, and formal education was not always a prerequisite. A strong work ethic and reliability were highly valued qualities.

The Role of Education and Training in the 1970s

Education and training were more aligned with vocational skills and apprenticeships. Formal education beyond high school was less common, and the emphasis was on acquiring practical skills.

The Transition: Workforce Changes in the 1980s and 1990s

As we moved into the 1980s and 1990s, the landscape of work began to shift. Technological advancements and the advent of the information age started to reshape the job market.

Technological Advancements and Early Signs of Upskilling

The introduction of computers and early digital technology created the need for workers with basic computer literacy. And now in 2023 expertise in using AI is starting to be a factor. 

The Impact of the Information Age on Job Complexity

With the growth of the information age, jobs started to become more complex. Workers needed to process and analyse information, and the ability to adapt to evolving technology became crucial.

Rise of Service Industries: Shifting Skill Requirements

Upskilling in the New Millennium: Workforce Trends in the 2000s

The 2000s brought about significant changes in the workforce. The knowledge economy emerged, and upskilling became essential for career growth.

The 2000s witnessed the rise of the knowledge economy, with a growing demand for workers with specialised skills in fields such as technology, healthcare, and finance.

From Routine Tasks to Problem Solving: The Changing Nature of Work

Jobs in the 2000s were characterized by a shift from routine, manual tasks to roles that required critical thinking, problem-solving, and adaptability.

Workforce Dynamics in the 2020s

Today, we find ourselves in a rapidly changing work environment, where technology, globalisation, and the need for innovation are driving forces.

Digital Transformation and the Digital Skills Gap

The digital transformation of industries has created a digital skills gap. Proficiency in areas like data analysis, coding, and digital marketing is now highly sought after.

Adapting to Remote Work: New Skills for a New Era

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote work. Alongside it, new skills such as remote collaboration, cybersecurity awareness, and digital project management have become critical.

Preparing for an Uncertain Future: Lifelong Learning and Continuous Upskilling

As we navigate an uncertain future, the importance of lifelong learning and continuous upskilling cannot be overstated. The ability to adapt to evolving technologies and industries will be a key to success. Whereas once only typists could type, a professional who can’t navigate a computer is almost worthless these days.

Examples of how jobs have required more skilled workers

Over the last 50 years not only has the workforce become more diverse, but new jobs have been invented. They are more complex jobs requiring skills we would never have thought of in 1970.

Who would have thought then that jobs on the long term skill shortages list would have included roles such as ICT multimedia specialist, sonographer, electric line mechanic, medical radiation therapist or other spacial scientist?

Among that list are several medical specialists jobs, electronic technicians, chemical engineers and aged care nurses. Almost every occupation on the list requires a university degree, including jobs for construction project managers. The description of the skills needed by an ICT multimedia specialist on an Australian site goes to five substantial paragraphs.

So let’s take just four general categories.

Nurses. The skills required of nurses have become significantly more complex and specialised over the years. Nurses today need advanced clinical knowledge and proficiency in technology. There are more drugs and more ways to administer them. ECGs and diagnostic imaging are now common.

They need more knowledge of anatomy, physiology and medical procedures. Today’s nurses need critical thinking abilities and cultural competency.

Food preparation jobs

In the 1940s-1960s “housewives” prepared most food at home from whole foods. But gradually the food industry developed. They modified and packaged food to make it more attractive.

The first food technology degree was introduced at Massey University in 1964. Now food technology is export-oriented with students having to consider international markets. There is also more innovation of specialised products. One website even talks about “food engineering”.

Nowadays ultra-processed foods are designed for quick and easy consumption, making them a convenient choice for busy individuals. This convenience factor can encourage frequent consumption as fats and sweeteners are added to make them more tempting.

Food technicians have to be familiar with a range of emulsifiers. For example, mono and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471), lecithin (E322) and polysorbates (E432, E436) are commonly used in ice-cream production.


There has been a drive towards agricultural intensification – to produce more milk, lambs, wool, meat or crops from the same land area. This has accelerated since the 1970s, due to increasingly competitive overseas markets. Farmers have increased productivity by using new technologies and using more water and fertiliser.

Over the decades, the mechanisation of agriculture has greatly increased efficiency in grain harvesting. Tractors, combine harvesters, and other farm machinery have made it possible to harvest larger areas of land more quickly and with fewer labourers.

The electricity used by agriculture from 1990 to 2019 rose six and a half times. A dairy farm manager nowadays must manage a range of complex electrical systems for milking and irrigation.

Home heating

First, it was the open fire. Some were better than others. But by the eighties, we had well-designed wood burners. All of these needed no specialist support – unless you count the annual call to a chimney sweep.

But now we have heat pumps. Heat pumps provide both heating and cooling and are more energy-efficient than traditional systems. They require specialised knowledge to instal and optimise their performance.

With central heating, it becomes even more complex. The integration of smart thermostats into heating systems allows for remote control and automation. Predictably, householders require technicians with specialist knowledge to set up and troubleshoot the system.

Is increasing complexity due to increasing energy and material throughput?

The increase in primary energy used during the earlier period is hard to find but we know the answer for 1990-2019. (We have to avoid Covid)

The International Energy Agency shows our primary energy up 53.5%, our electricity up 37.7%, and our emissions up 41% during that period. Our oil use nearly doubled during those two decades.

The increase in primary energy use in New Zealand is due to a number of factors, including population growth of 28%, economic growth of 73% and increased urbanisation.

And what about material throughput during these decades? Well, our waste to landfill actually decreased, according to the Ministry for the Environment. In 1990, New Zealand disposed of 2.8 million tonnes of waste to landfill, while in 2019, it disposed of 2.3 million tonnes. It’s still an awful lot.

A 2020 New Zealand Automobile Association (NZAA) report estimated that around 5,000 cars are dumped in New Zealand each year. And, according to the New Zealand Metal Recyclers Association, around 1 million tonnes of scrap metal is recycled in New Zealand each year.

The Skilled Worker situation will Deteriorate unless we Simplify our Economy

Traditional skills have given way to a demand for specialised knowledge, digital proficiency, and adaptability. No advanced economy has proved it can train enough people for this ever-growing trend. Rich nations must not keep stealing skilled people from developing nations.

Given the impossible trend, it is clear that some major rethinking is required. Have we forgotten that we swim in a sea of cheap and affordable energy? Are we being energy blind?

Nate Hagens calls our oversized human enterprise the “superorganism”. He writes,

We have just undergone a couple centuries of the greatest complexification in our species’ history, where we have combined innovation and ideas with energy and materials into technology that has massively increased the scale of the human enterprise.

If you consider the number of humans on the planet, 7.9 billion, times the average material throughput—how many goods and services the average person uses—the human economy is over 1000 times bigger than it was 500 years ago. This is all on the backs of fossil energy and materials that we are extracting from the earth 10 million times faster than they were sequestered by natural systems.


The Australian Simplicity Institute wants:

‘Degrowth’ (i.e. planned economic contraction) is necessary in the overdeveloped nations in order to move toward a just and sustainable economy that operates within safe biophysical limits.

3. A degrowth economy implies radically reducing energy and resource requirements compared to overdeveloped nations. Among other things, this means giving up affluent, consumer lifestyles and embracing ‘simpler ways’ of living that provide for mostly local needs using mostly local resources.