Friday, October 28, 2011

Work is Obsolete

Back in the day, the shows that predicted the future would generally present to us a vision of the future where people would have to work for only a few hours, a few days a week.

What they neglected to tell us was that this future was no dream of a more leisurely society; it is in fact a nightmare. The fundamental problem: no company is going to pay people to not work. The model presented therefore only worked if the people who were then working for companies owned a share in that company, so that when the company automated the process, and they no longer needed to work, they would still benefit from the prosperity of the company. This was not the case, it is not the case now.

We now live in a world much like that described. In a great many industries, automation has rendered a lot of workers unnecessary. When cars are manufactured, there are still people involved in designing the cars, there are people involved in tooling up the robots to build the cars, and there are people involved in testing the cars. But what there are not are large numbers of people on an assembly line building cars - instead, you have a few people monitoring the robots as they do that.

In other jobs, the work is exported to countries where it can be done more cheaply.

And so, where are unskilled and semi-skilled people supposed to work? Tesco? McDonalds? Or are they supposed to remain permanently unemployed, and live off the state?

The problems with all three 'solutions' is money. The wages offered by the employers listed are pretty low, meaning that actually living on that income is difficult to impossible. Likewise, subsisting on benefits is no way to live long-term.

But the state can't afford to vastly increase the level of unemployment benefits. On the contrary, we really need to get that bill down, because we already can't afford it.

And make no mistake - if Tesco or McDonalds were required to pay their employees much more, they would promptly respond by automating those jobs and getting rid of the staff. In fact, this is already happening - in Tesco, witness the rise of self-service checkouts; in McDonalds, the cook processes are now so carefully specified that a robot could easily do them. The only reason things like shelf-stacking and cooking in McDonalds isn't automated is that it is still (just barely) cheaper to pay a kid minumum wage to do it.

(Likewise, the only reason Nike employ large numbers of people in sweatshops in Asia is that doing so is cheaper than automating the process. If they were forced to pay those workers UK-level, or even US-level, wages for their work, they would get rid of those jobs entirely, and automate the process instead.)

It's a rough situation, and it's only going to get tougher as automation becomes more powerful (we already have robot orderlies in hospitals - how long until every checkout assistant, every waiter, every flight attendant, and so on get replaced with robots?). And, of course, it's even tougher for that segment of our society who cannot readily elevate themselves from 'unskilled' to 'skilled' - and that's not to mention the likelihood that some skilled jobs are likely to become obselete with time (as with miners).

I don't really have any great point to make here, except perhaps to say this: make damn sure your kids get a good education because, unless the revolution comes, they're going to need it!


Kezzie said...

Exactly! I wish that many of my children would take it seriously when I tell them there's no way they can just think they can go on benefits when they're older because there wont be any and they need to be the best that they can be now. Sadly, some of them just think it's Miss ranting again. But I shall keeping banging my head against that brick wall!

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that someone can write such an insightful article and end it on such a moronic note. If there just aren't any jobs how is getting an education going to help? I choose not to get a job because my dad can afford to support me and there are others who need jobs more. I am 28 years old, I live with my dad and go to school, not with any expectation of getting a job but just for something to do. If I had to to survive I would get a job. If I couldn't get a Job I would murder people who did have a job and take their stuff. If we want to hAve a civilized society we have to recognize that Food, shelter, healthcare and such are basic human rights that have to be provided no strings attached. If not we will have people killing each other in the streets. People have to get over this knee jerk reaction of " well I worked so I want other people to have to work." we have to recognize society has changed and act as if work really is obsolete.