I will start this blog by speculating about the future, as many have tried before, with some being more successful than others and many being hilariously wrong or archaic in their conception of class or gender as demonstrated by many a Youtube video. Indeed today I came across (in a Wetherspoons in the Black Country town Oldbury of all places, where I’m using wifi following an interview) an encyclopedia-type book (I think from the 1950s) where the author confidentially asserts that we have reached “the final stage of economic development”. 
This will be particularly about trends in employment, and will focus primarily on Britain first and Europe and “the West” second, since I’m writing what I know (or at least think I know…). For the purpose of this post, I will assume a more “optimistic” future with no oil or other serious energy crisis for the time being.
The more I hear and read, and even see around me, the more I am convinced we are living through – or rather limping blindfolded through (like a peasant in the time of Gutenberg’s printing press and Luther or at the beginning of Britain’s Industrial Revolution) – a chaotic revolution that will change the way we all live and how society functions in ways we can’t easily predict. And I certainly can’t.
The “information” or “digital revolution”, coupled with the continuing globalisation and intertwining of the economies of countries and a nascent and growing automation revolution that we are just beginning to feel the effects of, and with even more sci fi inventions potentially in the wings like 3D printers (potentially a small step on the way to Star Trek replicators – though they’re probably impossible), self-driving cars (isn’t it strange we went to the moon before inventing those?) and God knows what.
To try to get to the point I’m trying to make, think about your last visit to a supermarket.
Did you see a sign asking for staff in the window (a common sight only 10 years ago when I was a sixth-former in Hampshire)? How many staff did you see? If it was Aldi or Lidl possibly barely any (and with a long line too quite often). But for other supermarkets, were there many till operators? And were there automated checkouts? How many full-time jobs that provide enough money to rent even a room do you suppose the whole enterprise provides? In my experience very few these days, with the corner shop-sized “local” branches providing almost none outside management.
Or have you ever taken an administrative or data-entry job, and wondered why the office uses so much paper, or why you are being paid to read data off paper, put it into a computer and print it off in our so-called new, digital “paperless” office? (Whilst being bloody thankful that this idea doesn’t seem to have occurred to your employers yet.)
Or have you read one of those articles where one of Britain’s small number of remaining manufacturers claims it is crying out for employees – but then it seems they only need about 5 people with ten years’ experience and expensive phDs and Masters degrees in something complicated and esoteric, and maybe a cleaner and security guard provided by an agency on a zero-hour contract, whilst machines do most of the rest of the work?
And when did you last buy a newspaper? Or a CD? Or even pay more than a pittance for a digital copy of music (assuming you pay for it at all?).
Based on observations such as these, I am coming to believe that much of the ever-increasing unemployment (and especially youth unemployment) in the West is structural and – in the absence of a government creating jobs that don’t really need doing and deliberately encouraging inefficiency (as the right likes to accuse the left and the public sector of doing) – is likely to get worse.
And all that talk of a “knowledge economy” where the large number of graduates our country apparently needs to take up large numbers of “graduate” white collar office jobs shuffling paper or doing something with computers or in some other way creating profit with their new-found knowledge (it was always vague what exactly it was we’d actually be doing after we went to uni as we were all told we should do, at least at my school). It just leads to hollow laughs now, doesn’t it?
I cannot see how if present trends continue the present model of waged or salaried full-time employment for the majority of the population that pays enough fiat currency can continue to be provided in order to allow the population to pay for food and shelter whilst using discretionary income to buy the variety of goods they need to for our consumerist- and retail-driven economy to continue. Indeed if credit cards and overdrafts were suddenly taken away, much of Britain’s brick-and-mortar retail sector (outside of grocery) likely would collapse like a house of cards.
Particularly with so many of the jobs (which are wrongly claimed to be unskilled, but are often repetitive, tedious and low-paid) that many “middle class” “white collar” professionals (some of them quite snobby) see as a last resort continuing to vanish – first low-level factory work in the 1980s, now much retail work, maybe tomorrow (if the recent film on a robot caring for an old bank robber comes true) cleaning and caring for the sick and elderly – along with many middlemen positions (e.g. travel agent) are in major decline due to the Internet and technology. Even the military may on the road to being automated, if remote-controlled drones are ever given autonomy (a terrifying thought).
This reminds of the Simpsons episode where Lisa and Bart are in a military academy and are told: “The wars of the future will be fought by robots. And your role will be to build and maintain those robots”.
I think we will eventually either have to think up a completely different kind of socio-economic order (remember how recent that order is – decades or a few hundred years old depending on how it’s defined – and entirely man-made) based on these realities (which I find hard to imagine), or end with some kind of dysfunctional feudal society.
I could imagine such a society with those with control of the means of production (to borrow a Marxist phrase) telling the ever-growing number of unemployed – who live in poverty not due to scarce resources but due to being unable to exchange labour for a make-believe and now increasingly irrelevant means of exchange called money (i.e. fiat currency created out of thin air by governments, used as a mechanism of allocating scarce resources that are in many cases now abundant) – to get on their bikes, pull their socks up and find work or start a profitable business that provides them with enough money to live off whilst 3D printers, robots and computers presided over by a small team of technicians do nearly everything. Indeed I think something similar was imagined in Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman (the author of the wonderful Vietnam War-era sci fi novel The Forever War).
(Reading back through that, I suppose it does sound a bit Communist…)
This is hardly an original prediction, see The Guardian, “Rise of the Robots” for instance . Or Martin Ford’s The Lights in the Tunnel (available as a free PDF, or paid-for ebook) – which I found interesting (and he probably makes the main point I’m trying to get across more clearly and with less waffle than me), though it seems to me his proposed new economic system is a bit like clutching at straws to retain parts of the confortable status quo. Or the very prescient 1995 book The End of Work by Jeremy Rifkin.
Indeed sci fi writers (e.g. Isaac Asimov, Star Trek), optimists (and – of course – the lazy) have been predicting an end to most necessary work for the masses for a long time and have so far been proved wrong, especially in the USA where if anything hours for those who’ve managed to get full-time work seem to be increasing (whilst the reward in real terms declines ever further). One thing the sci fi writers neglect is how on earth we moved from the assumption that most people need to earn money to pay for things through their labour, to their glorious leisured utopia – e.g. how were the robots and other resources allocated to the masses if they had no means of earning an income to pay for them?
And I don’t mean this leads to some kind of “Communist utopia” – after all one of the authors of books predicting an end to work (I read a quote ages ago – need to try and find the citation and so far can’t) basically pointed out that socialists see work as a right or obligation for all that should be provided by the state (and we can guess what that leads to if taken too far). If not that much work actually needs people to do it, you end up with the situation workers in deliberately over-manned enterprises in the Soviet bloc used to joke about: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us” which hardly sounds like a solution.
I’m also not advocating idleness – many people would go mad without something meaningful to do with their lives, so such things must be found even if they no longer fit into the wage labour model (and surely there is some benefit at least for the masses being liberated from being coerced by financial necessity into taking jobs they often dislike or aren’t suited to and spending most of their waking hours in them?).
I realise I risk being branded a Luddite for this position – or lazy – and I am of course prepared to be proved wrong by events, as predictors of the future often are. But whenever arguments are made claiming this brave new world will usher in the jobs we need for our present system to keep on functioning just as before with a few minor adjustments, I just don’t find them convincing.
A lot of them seem to be basically like Mechanical Turk (doing bits of piece-work for cents or dollars) – which sounds to me a bit like the digital equivalent of standing on a roadside in a developing country or Victorian London and washing the windows of motorists, shining gentleman’s shoes, selling home-made food or other types of activity that in the West (with its vast monopolies using economies using of scale) is unlikely to ever provide a roof over one’s head or compete with the support of the welfare state (assuming such a thing still exists).
Of course in a small number of cases being self-employed pays its way – typically with scarce knowledge and practical skills (e.g. expert translators, freelance journalists, plumbers, electricians) or new ideas by the few successful entrepreneurs. But not everyone is a successful inventor (and even many of them never made much money), and I don’t see a way almost everyone could earn a living from such activities (at least without driving the cost of many services down to near-zero by competition, in the same way many old books on Amazon now cost a penny plus postage). At least unless the cost of food and shelter eventually plunges towards zero along with the market value of many a young persons’ labour when not restricted by law (as evidenced by unpaid internships), and possibly some new means of generating demand is thought of.
If anyone’s got this far through what may be a dense thicket of badly-laid out waffle, what do you think?
I suspect living through Thatcher and Reagan’s 1980s, seeing hypermarkets, retail parks and factories where only a handful of people work might cause this author to possibly reconsider that notion. Or just walking out of the pub I’m sitting in and going for a walk around Oldbury and the Black Country. And of course he’s hardly the only one, there was all the end of history talk at the end of the Cold War, the patent office official in the late 19th century who thought there’d be no new inventions.
I will return again to the very disturbing and unaddressed likelihood that the West’s interconnected industrial society could collapse like a house of cards if just a few things go wrong. In this scenario, presumably my point about employment would be remedied in a horrific way and the survivors would have full employment in agriculture, militias and coal-mining. Ditto for a global nuclear war, which would likely have a similar outcome if enough people survive.