Automation and the changing workforce.

"Labour can at least begin the process by reforming social security and striking back at right wing rhetoric that condemns those without jobs. We can champion education systems that enable everyone and anyone to achieve their goals and contribute to society, without the need to do so through employment. We must begin this change."

A few weeks ago, I was teaching a class on the future of technology and society. As the class moved on to AI and robotics, they voiced their predictions on how the technologies will change society. They were unremittingly positive; we will all soon have robotic servants and our basic needs will be met by automated production. I was struck by the force of the optimism; technology will only bring improvement. I asked them how technology has changed their lives in comparison to their parent’s generation. There were mass appeals to the internet, mobile phones and a variety of other marvels. I asked whether these technologies made their lives easier than their parents. The optimism faltered.

They began to point out the stresses and pressure technology places upon them; they have no disconnect from work nor a space they can call their own. They must work harder and longer to afford the newest technologies and they have little choice in the matter, as their lives can barely function without them. And yet when questioned about the effects of further technology, they imagine a world of relaxation. They imagine that they will be freed from burden and work, if life becomes highly automated.

One could point out that the technology in question, full scale automation, is incomparable to any advances that have come before. Previous changes have certainly made our lives easier but they haven’t been able to rid us of the need to work. Automation may be able to do this on a large scale. Automation could lead to an inncomenserable social shift. This all depends however, upon whether our understanding and attitude towards employment radically changes.

 If the majority of jobs are replaced by automation, then it would seem necessary that life would have to change. This statement is effectively a truism; the interesting question is what kind of change will occur. There is no reason to suppose that our lives must be improved by this form of automation. Automation could simply cause mass unemployment.

The ordinary person needs to work to survive; automation will not necessarily remove this need. If automation replaces employment in certain industries, you will simply have large groups of people with no access to paid work. That hardly seems new nor beneficial. The only way automation will provide radical positive change, is with governmental support. The government must provide support for those caught in the unemployment wave.

So, what if the government doesn’t help? You will have an extension of the current employment crisis we already have. Our government chose not to help workers who lost their industries due to technological and economic developments, and in doing so, ripped communities apart and left a large segment of the workforce bereft of support. The effects on inaction in respect to the automation epidemic, will be of the same kind, just multiplied beyond belief. The workforce effected will be from multiple vocations and number in the millions.

There are two obvious paths to avoid the unemployment cataclysm. The first is to employ people in fundamentally unnecessary jobs. Businesses may even be tempted to do this, as they realize that the consumerism which keeps the economy afloat relies upon keeping the vast majority in work and having disposable incomes. If the current consumerist culture is to survive, businesses will need to invest in pointless and frivolous employment to keep their own business afloat. The invisible hand of the market would demand employment, for the oddest of reasons.

Alternatively, we could simply accept that automation means that we are moving to a post-employment society. Automation will entail the destruction of the need to work, in terms of societal function. We will no longer need human producers or many service staff, so why should we assume that the majority of our populace needs to work? The morality of employment revolves around the relationship the employed have toward society; we condemn skivers and the habitually unemployed because they are an apparent drain on society. If automation removes the societal need for work however, then our morality concerning employment begins to flounder. The unemployed would no longer be a drain because there is no need for them to be employed. This being the case, it seems perverse to penalise them for being unemployed; it would be punishing them for that which is neither wrong nor under their control.

The question remains however, as to how will we respond to this change. We can either use automation as a catalyst to re-examine our considerations about hard work and ethics, or we can ignore the development and simply continue. I do not pretend to be neutral on the subject, but nor do I believe that there cannot be any arguments for the latter. I would rather that we reevaluate how we understand what a ‘good citizen’ is, in reaction to radical technological change.

How can Labour bring about such a fundamental change? Labour can at least begin the process by reforming social security and striking back at right wing rhetoric that condemns those without jobs. We can champion education systems that enable everyone and anyone to achieve their goals and contribute to society, without the need to do so through employment. We must begin this change.


Angus Ryan is a Young Fabians Member.

The Young Fabians provide policy analysis for the left. If you are interested in campaiging for the Labour Party, and raising these issues on the doorstep, please volunteer at http://www.labour.org.uk/volunteering

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