Half the jobs are go­ing

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­erjm.com.

“The no­tion that Uber in Lon­don is a mo­saic of 30,000 small busi­nesses linked by a com­mon ‘plat­form’ is, to our minds, faintly ridicu­lous,” said one of the judges on the em­ploy­ment tri­bunal. So the tri­bunal ruled that Uber’s 30,000 driv­ers in Lon­don were ac­tu­ally em­ploy­ees and, there­fore, en­ti­tled to be paid the min­i­mum wage, to be given sick pay, even to have paid hol­i­days.

Uber promptly ap­pealed the rul­ing be­cause it would wreck its busi­ness model in the United King­dom and, if the ex­am­ple spreads, world­wide. But it was only a tem­po­rary vic­tory for work­ers’ rights be­cause just as the real jobs have been re­placed by fake ‘free­lance’ jobs, like Uber that strip peo­ple of their old le­gal pro­tec­tions, so the ‘free­lance’ driv­ing gigs will soon be re­placed by – no jobs at all.

The first self-driv­ing cars are al­ready on the roads. Au­to­ma­tion, in the form of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, will prob­a­bly abol­ish al­most all the driv­ing jobs in the next 20 years. In Bri­tain alone, that means 400,000 jobs driv­ing big trucks and al­most 300,000 li­censed taxi driv­ers. (The jobs driv­ing de­liv­ery vans will last a lit­tle longer.)

Three-quar­ters of a mil­lion jobs gone, say, and noth­ing plau­si­ble com­ing down the road to re­place them. Scale it up to the size of the United States, and that’s around four mil­lion more Amer­i­can jobs gone, not to for­eign com­pe­ti­tion and ‘out­sourc­ing’, but just to tech­no­log­i­cal change. It’s harder to re­place driv­ers than bank tell­ers – “every ATM is the ghost of three bank tell­ers” – but it just takes a lit­tle longer to de­velop the right soft­ware.

There is a mes­sage here for all the an­gry peo­ple who voted for Brexit in Bri­tain, who will vote for Don­ald Trump next week in the United States, who will vote for Marine Le Pen and the Na­tional Front in France next April. They are an­gry be­cause the se­cure jobs and de­cent liv­ing stan­dards they en­joyed in the lat­ter half of the 20th cen­tury are gone. Some­thing must be done about it, but the jobs are not com­ing back.

This is a global eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion com­pa­ra­ble to the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, when en­tire pop­u­la­tions went from over­whelm­ingly ru­ral to over­whelm­ingly ur­ban in only two gen­er­a­tions. This time, the trans­for­ma­tion is from a full-em­ploy­ment econ­omy to an econ­omy of abun­dance that only re­quires a frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion to work.

A 2013 study by Ox­ford Univer­sity econ­o­mists Carl Frey and Michael Os­borne con­cluded that 47 per cent of Amer­i­can jobs are likely to be de­stroyed by au­to­ma­tion in the next 20 years. That’s change so big and so fast that peo­ple can’t be­lieve it’s hap­pen­ing, and so they pre­fer to fo­cus on some­thing like out­sourc­ing that might be fixed by pol­i­tics.

The In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion was an an­gry, tur­bu­lent time, with ur­ban up­ris­ings and class war­fare. We’ll be lucky if the dam­age this time is lim­ited to dem­a­gogues like Don­ald Trump, who pan­der to the fear and anger of the newly dis­placed – and not just the dis­placed of the old work­ing class, but the grow­ing num­bers of mid­dle-class peo­ple who are also be­ing dis­placed by ma­chines.


They are not ‘right-wing’ in the tra­di­tional sense, although many have be­come more so­cially con­ser­va­tive and some openly racist as their panic rises. ‘Pop­ulist’ is a much bet­ter word: they hate the changes and the ‘elites’ who seem un­touched by them, and they want their old jobs and their self-re­spect back. But the old jobs are not com­ing back, and even pop­ulist pol­i­tics can­not res­ur­rect them.

Be­sides, most of them ac­tu­ally hated their jobs, from which they were only free for two weeks (the US and Ja­pan) or, at most, five weeks (Europe) a year. The real task will be to find ways of pro­vid­ing a ma­jor­ity of our fel­low cit­i­zens with money and self-re­spect with­out those jobs. Some form of guar­an­teed min­i­mum in­come is prob­a­bly the an­swer, but we have barely got round to ask­ing the right ques­tion yet.

This is not a disas­ter; it’s a process. Last time, it took more than a cen­tury of mass mis­ery and oc­ca­sional mass blood­shed to get through it, but at the end, most peo­ple were liv­ing much longer, health­ier, more in­ter­est­ing lives than their peas­ant an­ces­tors. We should try to do it a lot bet­ter and quicker this time.


In this July 15, 2016, photo, a dou­ble-decker tour bus drives along­side an Audi self-driv­ing ve­hi­cle parked in Wash­ing­ton.

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