Business Technology

What keeps a billionaire up at night? Social unrest caused by robots

4 min read

10 June 2015

Johann Rupert, CEO of luxury goods company Richemont – who has made billions through brands including Cartier and Chloe – said replacing workers with robots will escalate the tension between the rich and the poor.

Speaking at the Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit in Monaco, Rupert said: “We cannot have 0.1 per cent of 0.1 per cent taking all the spoils. It’s unfair and it is not sustainable.”

Rupert himself has an estimated fortune of around $7.5bn, after founding Richemont, with brands under the company’s umbrella including Vacheron Constantin, Piaget and Montblanc.

He expressed concern at the advance in technology, believing it will lead to job losses and subsequent unrest. Rupert suggested a poor uprising would mean the middle classes won’t want to buy luxury brands for fear of exposing their wealth.

“How is society going to cope with structural unemployment and the envy, hatred and the social warfare?” he asked. “We are destroying the middle classes at this stage and it will affect us. It’s unfair. So that’s what keeps me awake at night.”

His thoughts came after reading books about changes in labour technology, as well as Oxfam figures indicating that the top one per cent of the global population now owns more wealth than the other 99 per cent.

Experts have voiced opposing views as to the role robots will play in the next decade – with some agreeing that they could lead to income inequality, while others arguing they will in fact create more jobs than they displace. Jonathan Grudin, a principal researcher Microsoft, has said: “There is no shortage of things that need to be done and that will not change”.

Previous research has indicated industrial robots will be of particular use to manufacturers, who may plump for them instead of workers, while lowering labour costs. Boston Consulting Group reported earlier this year that robots perform around ten per cent of manufacturing tasks that can be done by machines, with this likely to rise in the next ten years.

Read more on robots and the future of tech:

It’s not the first time Rupert has expressed outspoken views. He has previously been dubbed “Rupert the Bear” due to his pessimistic views on the economy – predicting a world economic crisis, and referred to himself a “reformed prostitute” due to ten years spent as an investment banker.

He is the son of South African business tycoon Anton Rupert and has been crowned the richest man in South Africa by Forbes. As a young man, Rupert dropped out of university to follow a career in business.

He has also criticised the South African government, saying last year that “the leadership of this country, quite frankly, is becoming very, very hard to defend abroad”.

Rupert added that the people running the country “were not given proper education”.

While delivering his speech in Monaco, Rupert also warned that collateral damage from the 2008 financial crisis was yet to hit the world. “We’re in for a huge change in society,” he said. “Get used to it. And be prepared.”

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