In the modern world, progress means unemployment. Recent events in the US show that fear of the wreckage of progress is beginning to affect major political movements in the developed world, although it’s unlikely that the new champion of the mythical “white working class” is going to ease the problems they are supposed to be facing. And whatever the particular racial composition of the working classes of the developed world, it is certainly true that they are facing challenges to their economic security, both now and in the future. Furthermore, if we are to move towards a post-scarcity world these challenges are going to be a lot worse. If the developed world makes the right decisions in the next 15 years (I think we can rest assured it won’t) we could see a world of self-driving cars and vat-grown meat, powered by renewable energy from sun, sea and sky that destroys jobs in the fossil fuel sector forever. In some ways we are close to a post-scarcity society – for example, the CSIRO estimates that the Australian coast line holds 8 times the energy required to power all of Australian society – but the changes we make to get there are going to have huge economic and social impact. Beyond the job losses and their cultural impact, what does it mean for Trump’s mythical “white working class” man (it’s always a man), who drives a big pick up truck, works in a coal mine and loves steak, to lose his job in the mines and see his children eating factory-grown meat and driving automated cars?
My own father is a model example of this problem. My father left school at about 15 to start an apprenticheship as a typesetter, and aside from a brief break to work as a hydatids control officer in New Zealand, worked for 40 years as a typesetter until computers destroyed his entire industry in the late 1980s. Finally he was sacked from his job in a small Australian country town, with no severance pay or future, and forced onto unemployment benefits in his early 50s. As a result our house was repossessed, he declared bankruptcy and returned to the UK to live on unemployment benefits, leaving me to fend for myself at the age of 17. This was emblematic of the devastation that computers wrought on this industry in the 1990s, and basically an entire generation of men were driven out of work and replaced by young university graduates with computers. My understanding is that subsequent shake-ups in the industry saw it further consolidated so that the small company my father worked for was probably also extinguished, and replaced with, first, print distribution centres in the big cities, and then print-on-demand services. Now the work of probably 100 typesetters is done by just one person handling print requests from professionals using word software. For my father (and his family) nothing about this story is good, but from an economic and industrial perspective this is exactly what needed to happen, and I benefit from it all the time in the form of cheap printed books and the ease of just emailing a file to Kinko’s and getting it a day later, instead of having to deal with a cranky old bigot like my father whenever I want to print a report. Win! Except for my father and his family …
For my father, thrown onto the dole queue at 50, there was really no solution to this problem. Nobody hires 50 year old men into entry-level positions, and there was no work in his industry anymore, which was in freefall. Sure he could have tried to get work as a taxi driver or some other kind of alternative industry, but these all have barriers to access and they don’t tend to pay entry-level workers the salary they need to support a family and a mortgage. There was no gig economy in the 1990s (nor would a gig economy support the lifestyle needs of a 50 year old man with a family). Like most working class men of his era, he didn’t have the capital to set up his own business, and the only business he could have set up was in any case being systematically destroyed by the computer age. To be clear, my father tried to keep ahead of the game in his field – he wasn’t a slacker, and for example my earliest experience of computers for work was the Mac he brought home in 1988 that didn’t even have a hard drive, on which he was teaching himself to do typesetting tasks (I think he used Adobe products even then!). But staying ahead of the game doesn’t work in an industry slated for destruction, and even in an industry where he might have been able to set up consulting work opportunities the chances of success were limited. Many economists would suggest that this destructive process is liberating, freeing up people like my dad to find new opportunities – to sink or swim in the new economy – but the reality is that when you lose your job with a mortgage and family, in your fifties, in a country town, you don’t swim. You sink. Which is what my dad did, very rapidly.
If we are to move to a post-scarcity society there is going to be a lot more of this, and a lot of it will be more destructive than what I witnessed with my father. The coal death spiral is going to be fast and brutal, and the men who emerge from their last shift in those mines are not going to have alternative work, since they have no education, no skills and no other work. In my father’s case, we lived in a country town that was held up by one industry – the local lead smelter – and that too is now sinking, leaving pretty much everyone else in the town in the same situation as my father. The move to a post-scarcity society has turned that town to a wasteland, and everyone in it is going to have to sink or swim in the new economy.
But should they?
The fundamental problem here is that we are moving towards a society that doesn’t have enough work, in a society that values people only based on their labour. Cast about through the language with which political economics describes what happened to my father and you won’t find a positive term. You’ll hear about men “thrown on the scrapheap”, about “long term welfare dependency” and “cycles of poverty”. You won’t hear men like my dad described as “liberated by technology” or “freed from work”. You won’t hear about how their self-worth was improved by having time to go to flower-arranging classes, and attend to their stamp collecting duties. The only people who are respected for having lots of free time for community work are young people and rich people. Working men are expected to work. But as we move towards a post-scarcity society, what are we to do with all these people we cast into this world of negative phrases and bad stereotypes and empty futures?
In the UK/Australian framework, my father had access to welfare. This meant he lived in a trailer park, earning perhaps 10% of his income as a full-time employee, forced into humiliating rituals of job-seeking and “signing on” to get his meagre payment, even though everyone involved in constructing and managing this system – from Margaret Thatcher down – knew that he would never get another job. Everyone also knew it wasn’t his fault, but you could spend years trawling through the rhetoric of the politicians, the newspaper columnists, and hate radio, and you would never hear talk about people on unemployment because their job was destroyed by a businessman’s strategy – you only hear about dole bludgers, the undeserving poor, people who can’t be bothered to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Into this world fell my father, proud working man, never to work again, to live on scrapings from the bottom of the government’s deficit-financed barrel.
That isn’t really right, is it?
But we’re going to see a lot more of this, so we need to start thinking about how to handle it. In particular, we need to recognize that as we abolish whole industries with sweeps of policy, we’re going to create more unemployed than we can find jobs for. We need to start talking about these people not as victims of structural readjustment, but as beneficiaries. Instead of bemoaning their fate, we need to welcome it, and treat them accordingly. Instead of telling my father he was thrown on the scrapheap, we should be saying to him, “congratulations! Technology abolished your job! The rest of your life is yours now, thanks for all your effort!” But we can’t do this if we don’t back it up with a proper respect for his material conditions. If we’re going to move to a world of infinite energy supplied by the sun, using solar panels constructed by a machine and monitored by a single guy who manages a solar farm big enough to power a city, we’re going to have to find a better way of dealing with all the coal miners and gas extractors that is better than saying “sorry!” and giving them a meagre welfare payment. So here are two proposals for how to manage the shift to a post-scarcity society, that are based in the reality of where we’re heading, rather than a behavioralist economist’s ideal of a kill-or-be-killed employment market.
- Accept the reality of job losses and growing unemployment: Rather than simultaneously treating structural adjustment as a disaster for workers while also demanding they get another job, any job, recognize that people done out of a job by the movement towards a world of no work are the beneficiaries of that move, and the first new citizens of the post-scarcity era. Identify industries that are obviously being destroyed – whether by offshoring, technology, or policy design – and offer specific rescue packages for the workers involved. Not stupid retraining packages based on the pretense that a 50 year old guy kicked out of the only industry he ever knew can ever work again, but real maintenance packages. Say to these men and women, “thanks for your years of work. Progress means your industry is gone, but we appreciate your efforts, and we understand this is a big change, so we’re going to support you.” Provide protection for their homes and incomes, and offer them the chance to retire early with dignity. Don’t insult them by treating them as if they were a 20-something dole-bludging surfer taking 6 months off the labour force to find the waves – offer them a real readjustment package that says “thanks, we appreciate your work, and we don’t need it any more, here’s your reward for a job well done.” Begin to build a class of post-scarcity citizens, not a class of post-adjustment wash outs.
- Consider education as a job, not preparation for a job: My father left school at 15 to pursue a career in an industry that was destroyed around him in a few years when he was in his 50s. But a 9 year education is not enough to get by in a modern society – this is a sacrifice he made in his youth to support an economy that changed around him. After his industry failed he spent the rest of his working-age years languishing, with nothing much to do, viewing the world through the lens of a working man with very little education. In the modern world we need as many people as possible to have the best possible education, so why not send him back to school? The government could have said “Thanks for your efforts, we realize that you left school at 15 to help society grow, and now we don’t need your work anymore and we don’t think that’s a fair exchange. Why don’t you go back to school and make up all those years you lost? And if you finish school and you’ve got the thirst for it, we’ll support you through university as well.” Of course, in many developed countries there is no actual barrier to a 50-something dude going back to lower high school – but we know they won’t do that without support, because it just doesn’t work that way. So support them, and make sure that their 40 years of contribution to society doesn’t hold them back from enjoying the same education as even the lowest surfie stoner in the modern world. And if this means that my father spends the last 15 years of his working life going all the way from lower high school to a PhD, then retires and never does anything with it, so what? Our society can afford it.
This is the reality of the modern world. We can afford so much more than we give out. The wealth my father’s efforts generated over his career would have been way more than sufficient for him to be retired 15 years early, the mortgage on his house supported by the government, and an education thrown in for free. He worked hard for some of the biggest publishing companies in the UK and Australia, massive profit makers whose role in the economy was significant. They no doubt paid (or should have paid) more than sufficient taxes to reimburse him for his labour once they no longer needed him. And if we are going to move to a world where most jobs are no longer necessary due to science, automation, or the need to abolish certain industries, we need to recognize that people like my father will be the first denizens of the brave new world we’re creating. We need to reward them, not punish them, for their service. Furthermore, we need to consider the possibility that even with the best, most perfect industry policies in the world, we will only create 1 job for every 2 we destroy – in which case we are going to be permanently increasing the size of the non-working population. So we need to start thinking about maintaining them, not as a burden on the rest of society, not as people who just won’t get a job, but as the forerunners of a society without work.
We are heading towards a society without work. The first people to experience that society are the long-term unemployed and the unemployed older workforce. If we don’t find a way to treat them as full citizens, and to ensure they can engage in society as full citizens – with accompanying salaries and bonuses – we need to realize that sometime in the future we are going to be living in a society with a very small number of wealthy workers and a very large number of poor unemployable people. Such a society is not sustainable, and in some ways, if the rhetoric about his voters is true, Trump is a sign of what will happen to us if we don’t deal with this issue.
Technology is intended to liberate us from labour. We call them labour-saving devices for a reason. But ultimately we need to recognize that once you have liberated a certain number of people from labour, you have created a new, non-working society, and you need to find a way to manage it. We want a post-scarcity society, not a post-happiness society. So let’s start thinking about ways to reward people for a lifetime of labour, rather than punishing them for picking the wrong industry 40 years ago.