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If This is Your Job, Watch Out!

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In "The Summer of Their Discontent," found here , I looked at what I thought was happening in Britain that was causing the riots of August 2011.

In my view, this is what the youth of Britain are protesting: no work, no wages, no benefits, no pension, no prospects. How did this situation come about? In 1998, I wrote an article for the Toronto Globe and Mail in which I discussed the structural forces that would cause a loss of social cohesion.

What is happening now, I believe, is actually the fruition of the forces we set in train long ago, long before even the events discussed in that 1998 article. But the factors it discussed are probably the most central. The chickens have come home to roost and fixing "what's broke" will not be an easy matter.

Holidays? Thank you, no. Sick time? None. Pension? Not for me. Pay taxes? Are you kidding? If this is your job, watch out!

Canada isn't suffering from a simple recession, though we often read that it is. Mergers and their downsizing, globalization and its restructuring, free trade and the flight of factories to low-cost labor areas, the retirement of the national debt, and the disappearance of government deep pockets -- all these are part of the picture. But the most important factor is left out. Without appreciating that factor, nothing we do to address the situation will work.

That factor is the permanent downsizing of the labor force through the capture of work by "labor-saving" technology. Sales force automation, syndicated selling, laboratory automation, warehouse management systems, automated booking, automated tellers, e-tickets, online banking, automated underwriting, automated front desk clerks -- all these "systems" have no other purpose than to reduce manpower. As Canadian Datasystems once wrote: "What is a computer for, if not to save labor?" "Saving labor" means eliminating wages, holiday pay, pension plans, security, careers, a future. It may also mean eliminating our ability to exist as a cohesive society.

Technology is a paradox. It helps as well as hurts. Technology has greatly benefited us in many ways, but it's a two-edged sword. We all know its ability to enhance our pleasure, add to our productivity, and increase our profit. But we choose to remain unconscious to the magnitude of its ability to capture work. When it's applied across the board to take work away from large numbers of Canadians, we create a major, national problem for ourselves -- not quite an extinction level event, but definitely a deep impact.

Since the Second World War, unemployment has steadily risen, averaging 4.2 percent in the 1950s, 5.1 percent in the 1960s, 6.7 percent in the 1970s, and 9.3 percent in the 1980s. In the 1990s, it hit peaks of 11 percent. For youth, unemployment stubbornly stands at more than double that figure. We're learning to tolerate higher and higher levels of unemployment. We'll be required to tolerate levels soon that we would now consider difficult to contemplate.

Why is this? Because up until now, technology has been capturing jobs, but now it's beginning to capture whole occupations. Corporate travel agents, medical lab technicians, printing trades, and warehousemen are examples of whole occupations that are threatened by "end-to-end solutions" and "automated workflows."

When "recession" does hit, it masks the shedding of the worker. But when recession lifts and workers don't return to jobs, the trend is starkly revealed. If we truly wish to find the explanation for a "jobless recovery," we need go no further than business plans like this:

"Sam Pierson, president of AGA-PGT Inc. wanted to expand capacity without adding employees. But he realized that, with conventional hydraulic injection molding, he could not reach his goal of a 'lights-out' [i.e., workerless] molding plant. ... But the firm achieved near lights-out conditions at its Vernon, Conn., molding plant by using new computer numerically controlled servo-driven electric injection presses, plus impressive automated material and parts-handling systems." (Plastic News, Sept. 1997.)

Is this not a thumbnail sketch of manufacturing and service automation's impact?

Unions have been weakened by the reduced need for labour and so can't represent the workers' interests as well as they once did. Governments find revenues falling as Canadians' incomes drop. They in turn are rationing funds to hospitals, schools, and social services, which are also rapidly shrinking their services. Bankrupt of ideas, governments follow a business model, cutting costs by shedding workers themselves.

These conditions will persist through good times and bad. They're not cyclical; they're structural. If we continue following the path we're on, we'll create a gulf between the employed and the technologically displaced that will lead to a permanent, growing, and impoverished underclass.

Please don't be fooled by the conventional wisdom that manufacturing jobs are being eliminated but service jobs are opening up or that computers create one new job for every one they close down (they don't). Automation is eliminating service occupations faster than it did manufacturing jobs. Why's this? Because service tasks are simpler, more repetitive, and thus more easily automated.

Unless corporations are stopped by an aroused and united public voice, anything that can be automated will. Watch for any occupation that earns its keep in the following ways to disappear in the near future (please hear me clearly: I said "occupation," and not "job"): (1) storing, filing, and retrieving; (2) monitoring, analyzing, accounting, and reporting; (3) doing middleman work (booking, selling, ticketing, dispensing, shipping, receiving); (3) making transfers of money, mail, stocks, or information; and (4) making decisions or issuing policies whose choices the consumer can just as well indicate to a machine. The list will get bigger as "systems" get better at doing our work. No occupation, not even computer programmer, is immune. If any of these job descriptions fits you, watch out!

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The author is a former Member of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and a member of Mensa Canada. He is the author of several Internet books and articles on gender persecution, cross-cultural spirituality, life after death, and the 2012 (more...)
 

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