Two things gave me a jolt last week.
Firstly, the analysis of our future world of work, in a 10 minute magazine programme, scared me, until I realised, we, as working people, have mastered worse.
The programme told that around 20% of the workforce is involved in manufacturing. Within 20 years, with the increased use of computer controlled (robot) technology, it will decrease to around 10%. That’s a lot of jobs, but it gets worse. We will also be able to reduce the number of vehicles on our roads. In our cities, it could drop to 10% of the current level, simply by car sharing instead of car owning. Logistics will make it possible to use a car, as we currently use a bus or train. Driverless vehicles mean no more drivers. Uber are experimenting with driverless trucks and we found out this week what the judges think of their employment practices.
But what about the car workers and those involved in the related industries if the car market collapses to 10%? That’s a lot more jobs and where does the research and development money come from if they sell no cars? Car companies are geared up to sell millions of cars to China, except – the air quality, using current technology, is unacceptable. Out of nowhere, car manufacturers need to produce long-range, fast, reliable electric cars. China will punish those who don’t succeed – or will introduce the logistics programmes that will eliminate the need for 90% of the expected car-sales. This is economic disaster for the West.
Doctors would be a casualty. If I can describe my symptoms accurately to a doctor, why not type in my observations? A data bank of illness symptoms, should be able to pull out the most likely result and prescribe a cure. Most GP work is routine. Maybe a computer wouldn’t confuse IBS with colon cancer. Sound OK? Not really.
Doctors can have bad days. They don’t do it deliberately. A computer can be programmed to always have a ‘bad day’, in order to save money.
Lawyers would be out of work. You type in your complaint and agree to accept the decision the computer hands out. Most cases have a precedent. Suddenly the poor person can litigate. Could teachers be replaced? Computer aided learning has never, so far, been successful, but the data quantities that can now be stored, could offer individual learning programmes. For some, that may be the solution.
Imagine a world where every branch of activity operates as banks soon will do. No branches, no one to speak to on a personal basis, no cash, transactions through mobile phones or embedded chips. It’s not absurd. Many people already do much of their communicating through social media and their shopping on-line. Why do we prefer to send a text message, instead of dialling the number? We are already tuned into this world.
Are there solutions? It is early days and having identified the problem, we should find answers and it need not be all gloom. Society doesn’t have to accept the Brave New World of computer controlled lives, but it will. Being competitive means, we have to do what the opposition does, and do it better, or go under. 30 years ago France shortened the working week, in order to share the advantages of mechanisation with its workforce. Now that is being taken away again, in order to be competitive.
Once robots take our jobs, the super-rich could share the added value of a robot world, and not stick in their pockets, but they won’t! The super-rich can’t be goaded into paying their taxes, which they are required by law to do. How likely is it, they will share what is demonstrably theirs? They will control capital from a remote state (such as Panama). They will answer to no one for their actions. They already speculate with food prices, knowing people starve. They won’t share in the future!
The only hope is that as jobs go, new ones will appear, created by the new work systems. That will leave many people without a living. Viewed from our present position – it is all gloom!
Then a second thing happened. I received a first-hand lesson in the indefatigability of the human spirit. I met a couple who had survived two political dreams that turned into nightmares. I got them to tell me their story.
I walked through a dark, rainy village called Oranienbaum. It has a hotel, a shop and three pubs – and a palace, built by a rich Dutch princess in the 18th century, because she wanted some home comforts in the hostile flatlands south of Berlin. I fancied a meal in a pub. The first two pubs were shut on a Sunday evening. I’m not complaining. No one uses pubs so why would they open? Pub three was open and brightly lit, but when I entered I found it deserted, apart from an old man and woman. It was cosy, with a low ceiling commensurate with its age. Everything was spotless, but from another era. I ordered a beer and a meal and they decided to chat, while I ate.
They were born around 1940, were old enough in 1945, when the Russians arrived, to know something awful had happened. They finished school in 1954 and worked until 1989 in a local chemical and munitions factory. She was in the kitchen and he on the production line. They arranged their lives to survive the repressive regime, the snooping, the random arrests for criticising the government. They married and moved into the family home, which was huge, but humble, had six children, adopted a seventh, presumably an orphaned relation, kept a cow and two pigs, which were regularly slaughtered to provide protein. I’m sure the children looked after rabbits and chickens and a huge vegetable garden and orchard. That was how families survived. While western living standards improved, they had nothing, apart from children, livestock, a smallholding and each other.
In 1989 the German Democratic Republic collapsed and joined the Federal Republic, which is now what we call Germany. Living standards improved, but not for them. The skills they had learnt in the factory were obsolete. The factory shut, as did the massive 400 MW coal-fired power station nearby. The air quality improved, but the competition for jobs was extreme. They hoped the Dutch Palace would become a tourist attraction and decided to turn their living rooms into a café. They fought the red tape and in 1990 opened what we now call a gastro-pub.
The building fabric in East Germany had deteriorated to such an extent, that post 1989, the only tourists were those who enjoyed seeing how bad others had it. Finally, in 2016, the palace is being renovated. My hosts are in their mid seventies. The pub has no business and they sell beer at a third the going rate in the hope that a few stray workers from the day shift will find their way through the door.
Life for them is dire and always has been. Their pension hasn’t been honoured by the current German Government and I guess they survive through the generosity of their children, who all have reasonable incomes, away from Oranienbaum. This couple have worked since they were fourteen, been pillars of society and now 75, have – nothing. They will have to reduce the livestock, are too frail to garden and are facing a miserable retirement. Their home and smallholding has no value. When they die it will be a burden for their children. I heard no complaints about the hand they had been dealt. I saw a determination to survive, a fire in the eyes that said, ‘We have seen off worse than this.’
No one knows how we will manage when people can’t go to work, because there is no work, no income – instead, robots and logistics programmes. We will find a solution. Millions of unemployed taxi, bus and truck drivers, with the steely resolve of the publican and his wife, will be an awesome foe for the super-rich to mess with. Money is just a bit of code in the new digital world. Computer code can disappear at the press of a button. Wealth can be redistributed in seconds.