By Paul Phipps

The robots are coming, and we’re all doomed!

That’s certainly one view of the way in which the world of work is changing, albeit, a somewhat pessimistic outlook.  Whilst we may not yet be facing a life of servitude and redundancy at the hands of the machines of labour, mechanisation and digitalisation, technological advancements are undoubtedly having a massive impact upon, where we work, how we work and, why we work.

Technology, even in its earliest, most primitive forms, has always had the ability to cause divisions within the social stratification.  For the owners of the means of production, technology comes at a price but will ultimately lead to increased efficiency and profits and therefore, is most appealing.  Conversely, for the worker, increased technology is often seen as a threat to jobs and the ability to earn a living and support a family.

At the end of the eighteenth century, a young weaver from near Leicester, Ned Ludd, is said to have smashed a knitting frame and although it is speculated that this was not an attack on a machine that was ‘coming in here taking our jobs’ so to speak, it began a movement amongst English textile workers in the early nineteenth century that became known as the Luddites, and it is this name that has become synonymous with opposition to new ideas and technological changes within industry.

No one can deny that the world of work as we know it, is currently undergoing phenomenal change that is going to have huge consequences on our lives, not least because there isn’t going to be enough meaningful work for everyone to do as machines and technology replace workers.

So, how are we, as a species, going to provide the everyday needs of a growing population, if jobs for the masses dwindle?

The change is happening now, and we are seeing the consequences, with the rise of zero hours contracts, increased part-time working, automated factories and services, the virtual elimination of the concept of ‘a job for life’ and generally smaller workforces producing the same amount of goods.  Alongside this change we are also witnessing the advent of driverless vehicles and delivery drones, further diminishing the need for labour, because, not only are the goods being produced with smaller workforces, even the delivery of the goods will be taken away from human workers.

When we look at the self-checkouts in supermarkets that have become so prevalent, some of us see them as a decline of human contact, job losses and the dehumanisation of shopping and others see them as convenient and fast, with the potential for making our goods cheaper, due to lower staff costs.

Whichever way you look at it, technology is changing the way in which these retail jobs are being carried out and this is seen across all industries and sectors, from online shopping to service industries, from the production of goods through to massive civil engineering projects.

It could be argued that this can only be a good thing.  However, increased mechanisation and technological solutions will mean that the need for people to carry out tasks is decreasing, so in say, fifty years’ time, how will people earn a living if the machines are doing the jobs?

Nothing in life is exempt from change and job markets are particularly sensitive to automation, but we do seem to be adaptable, so far.  In the UK we have seen a massive shift away from manufacturing with growth in service industries and whilst this is partially replacing jobs lost, it is surely only a matter of time before software starts to replace people in the service sectors.  The beginning of this is already evident with the rise of automated answering when calling many businesses and organisations and it’s only a question of time until we won’t get to speak to a human being altogether.

Moving away from the consequences of automation; what are the ways in which people are choosing to work differently?

Again, technology plays a significant part here with people often requesting to be able to work from home, at least part of the week.  Fast, reliable broadband and advanced mobile capability has made this a viable option for more people and the flexibility this allows has obvious benefits to the individual, especially working parents.

This obviously requires trust between the employer and employee and some employers are reluctant to give the option, particularly during the early stages of employment and data protection is also a consideration if documents and files are kept outside of the usual secure office environment.

Part-time working can be seen from two sides.  Some people choose part-time to give a better work/life balance whilst others are unable to find full-time employment and often have to work more than one part-time role to earn enough to cover basic needs.

There has also been a rise in self-employment since the 2008 recession, which again, is sometimes through choice but often due to necessity because of the lack of opportunities brought about by the recession.  The reluctance of employers to recruit full-time permanent staff when they can use self-employed contractors that avoid employer’s cost is understandable, although, quite detrimental to individuals who would like a secure, full-time job.

That said, self-employment does suit some people but there is a worrying fact here.  Self-employed people generally earn less than those in employment and this is especially true of those who are forced in to self-employment because of the lack of employed opportunities in some sectors.

What does the future hold for us as working societies?

We go to work to earn money in order to live and whilst many people say how much they love what they do, many wouldn’t do what they do if they didn’t have to.  The creation of a monetary system helped to remove inaccuracies of the exchange of goods and services through the barter system.  Giving change for a goat can be somewhat problematic.

The money we earn and use to pay mortgage/rent, food, clothes and some luxuries can be compared to us going out and hunting, growing and gathering our own fruit, veg, berries etc and building and maintaining our homes and this goes back to a statement in the first paragraph of this piece, ‘why we work’.  The reason we work in the modern world is because we no longer do the essentials; hunt, grow, gather, build and maintain a home for ourselves, which is all well and good all the time there is paid work for everyone.

With a growing population and the decreasing need for human labour, how will we pay our way in the future?

This is a question that is not only difficult to answer, but is also being avoided (publicly, at least) by those in power, because the prospect of vast numbers of people with no meaningful employment, is simply terrifying.  If the production of goods, services and transport become virtually ‘human-less’ the masses will not be able to earn a living.  The owners of businesses will still have an earned income, but what will the employees do when their jobs are replaced by machines and technology?

In the UK at times of high unemployment, the bill for benefits paid out is massive and if people in the future are not working and paying taxes, we will be in an untenable position.  This is a situation that needs to be addressed because it is coming and to do nothing will have serious consequences on the entire global population.  With global populations continuing to rise, tomorrow’s problem is rapidly becoming a serious issue for today.

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