Wednesday, 24 October 2007

The Future: A Workerless World?

Apparently Jeremy Rifkin, the professor famous for predicting a Third Industrial Revolution on the back of Green Technology, has made one other prediction that kept rather more under wraps by our leaders. In the technological heaven that is the 21st century, he suggests, there won't be much work for human beings left to do since many of us will be replaced by robots.

Indeed, although"The global economy has never been more productive worldwide, unemployment is at its highest since the Great Depression. Out of 124 million American jobs, 90 million are potentially vulnerable to replacement by machines."

Now, as someone who values my leisure time that seems pretty good news at first sight, as it does to Professor Rifkin. Yet like labour-saving devices, feted in the 50s for giving us more free time away from chores but which simply give us more time to work, it seems this change could seriously back-fire on the human race.

Why? Well let me copy and paste Bob Black's critique of this theory:

Problem Number One: No Work; No Money; Huge Underclass
"As Rifkin reveals, the tech-driven downsizing of the workforce spares no sector of the economy. In the United States, originally a country of farmers, only 2.7% of the population works in agriculture, and here -- and everywhere -- "the end of outdoor agriculture" is foreseeable. The industrial sector was next. And now the tertiary sector, which had grown relative to the others, which is now by far the largest sector, is getting pared down. Automatic teller machines replace bank tellers. Middle management is dramatically diminished: the bosses relay their orders to the production workers directly, by computer, and monitor their compliance by computer too.
We approach what Bill Gates calls "frictionless capitalism": direct transactions between producers and consumers. Capitalism will eliminate the mercantile middlemen who created it.
In Proletarian Heaven, the handloom weavers must be snickering. What's wrong with this picture? Fundamentally this: the commodities so abundantly produced in an almost workerless economy have to be sold, but in order to be sold, they must be bought, and in order for them to be bought, consumers require the money to pay for them. They get most of that money as wages for working. Even Rifkin, who goes to great lengths not to sound radical, grudgingly admits that a certain Karl Marx came up with this notion of a crisis of capitalist overproduction relative to purchasing power"

Problem Number 2: The Fewer Workers, the More Stress - Both For Those With Jobs and Those Without

"Today we work longer hours than we did in 1948, although productivity has since then more than doubled. Instead of reducing hours, employers are reducing their fulltime workforces, intensifying exploitation and insecurity, while simultaneously maximizing the use of throwaway temp workers, momentarily mobilized reservists with little job security and lots of stress.

The work of the remaining workers, the knowledge-workers, is immensely stressful. Like text on a computer screen, it scrolls around inexorably, but for every worker who can't take it, there's another in "the new reserve army" of the unemployed (another borrowing from you-know-who) desperate to take her place. And the redundant majority is not just an insufficient market, it's a reservoir of despair.

Not only are people going to be poor, they're going to know that they're useless. What happened to the first victims of automation -- southern blacks displaced by agricultural technology ending up as a permanent underclass -- will happen to many millions of whites too. We know the consequences: crime, drugs, family breakdown, social decay. Controlling or, more realistically, containing them will be costly and difficult"

The Way Forward:

Jeremy Rifkin thinks that the only way out of this nightmare is getting the semi and unemployed to be paid in return for voluntary service. Community work. Cleaning Streets. Clearing woodland. Whatever you want to call it it is far from sitting on a beach with a pina colada, enjoying the benefits of not working. In fact his solution bears more than a passing ressemblance to slavery. Bizarrely Jeremy Rifkin thinks this is a great solution because - what would people do if they didnt work??

It is clear that, in this case, the Protestant Spirit and Work Ethic are coalescing seemlessly. Ask people in other countries - Italy, for example, where everything always seems to be closed, or our Mexican fisherman from the previous post - how they would live without work and they would tell you straight away: focus on their personal priorities. Work is created so we can pursue these - not so we can ignore them and plough on in 15 hours a day. Some poor souls have the misfortune to have badly paying jobs. In the past, it was they who worked hard to survive. These days, city bankers are as likely to slave away all the hours God sends - just to have their two weeks of leisure per years, sitting by the beach with their blackberries on standby.

Bob Black has a better idea. Get rid of the control element which underlines such ideas. Let people work fewer hours, let them job share, to give more people a chance to earn. Then we might all be happier.

Vive la France, Vive la semaines des 35 heures!

Why Work?

I get to the office pretty early in general, as I have to be there in time for an 8am morning meeting. This is not as early as the majority of my 'team' who, for reasons best known to themselves, like to get there around 7.30. Given the majority is still there at 7.30 at night I wonder how they manage their lives, relationships, shopping - even little things like ironing or going to the bank.

I'm not very good at living like this. For a start, I hate mornings. Always have. I can just about cope with starting up my brain around 10am but before that body and mind simply don't coalesce. Of course, I can't argue with the boss about coming in at this horrendous hour. But I don't have to be happy about it either. As far as I am concerned I work hard, and have to deal with a lot of stress as it is. Surely he should understand that I do this only under duress?

But no. Today I met him in the lift on the way to the meeting. He asked how I was and I said, 'fine thanks, but tired'. He stopped, turned around, and looked at me amazed saying 'how can you be tired. It's already 8am! You should start work earlier, you'll get more done". I didn't really know what to say (and was stifling irritation that I now appear lazy simply because I don't live in the office 24/7) but my real objection was this. Why do we always have to do more, more, more? What are we working for, exactly, that we have to dedicate ourselves body and soul to the cause?

It's not like we are at war, or in a national emergency or something. It's not even about short-term necessity. It's a chronic condition based on the assumption that nothing in life could be more important than work. And equally, that there is nothing worse in life than not working. That is why stay-at-home mums these days find themselves so isolated and lacking in self-worth and why the unemployed, or worse, beggars, are so stigmatised - even though full employment is no more than a pipe-dream for most countries.

I simply don't accept that this is the best way to live. However, I am clearly in the minority. Living to work is one of the great givens of the modern age. What we do, how much we earn, who we know - these are the keys to our identity and status. The private self, the domestic self has been essentially devalued. For me, this is the malaise of modern Europe - but one for which other world cultures still have the antidote. I'm always amazed how friends from other countries - particularly those in South Asia or the Middle East - think Europeans are oppressed. No time for leisure, for family, for contemplation, even to cook a proper meal or say hello to your neighbours they say. What kind of life is that?

I'm bound to agree. While I can't simply ignore my own culture and do things differently I would love to work part-time, do a bit of studying or volunteering, look after my kids and cook proper food. I would love to have a garden and grow my own veg. I would love to have the time and the energy to see family and friends without having to fit them into an already bulging Saturday full of household chores.

To illustrate the stupidity of our current situation I chanced on this amusing anecdote. Remember it next time you are tempted to take a high flying position with a 16 hour working day and no holidays.

The story, of unknown origin, goes something like this: An American investment banker, visiting a small village in Mexico, encounters a Mexican fisherman. The fisherman describes his life: "I sleep late, fish a little, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life."

The American scoffs at the fisherman’s lack of ambition and goes into great detail about how he could expand his small business and make millions. "Then what?" asks the fisherman."Then you would retire," replies the American. "Move to a small village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos."

For more arguments along the same lines go to the website: