A topic of discussion all too often ignored by the media and those in power is the pressing concern of those in our society who work in unskilled labour jobs. How long will it be before computers and robots take over from workers? It sounds like some farfetched idea from a science fiction movie at first glance, but this is more than likely going to be the defining factor in how the so called millennial generation develops going forward.
Have you been to a McDonalds lately? In most branches up and down the country, you will notice less staff taking orders behind the counter and more customers opting to use the new self-service kiosks. In Australia, because of the popularity of the kiosks, they have taken this one step further and totally removed the serving counter altogether.
How many train stations do you go to these days where you can’t buy a ticket from the office and have to use the machines? And staying with the trains, notice the Southern strikes? Southern’s eventual long term goal is to have driver only trains on a majority of its network and totally automated self driving trains, kind of like the Docklands Light Railway in London, on a good portion of its network.
One of the most eye-opening examples of this trend comes from Amazon in the US. They are looking to “Revolutionise” grocery shopping. They have recently opened a test store in Seattle called Amazon Go which is a supermarket with a difference. No checkout staff. At all! You swipe your phone on the way in, pick up whatever you need from the shop as per usual, then just leave. Your purchases are automatically charged to your amazon account using a bunch of cameras and sensors in the store to detect what you picked up. Obviously this is only a test at this point, but this is where the trend is going. Fewer and fewer people needed for work. We are even seeing the construction and shipping industries trying out automated systems to eliminate workers from building and truck driving jobs.
The reasons for this trend are simple. Robots and computers don’t need paying, don’t need time off, won’t file lawsuits against a company for unfair dismissal and they won’t complain about working conditions. Machines are a corporate dream that keep costs down and increase productivity. But have you spotted the obvious problem yet? Where do all those workers that had jobs go?
There have already been some proposed solutions to this problem. Various European countries, as well as the province of Ontario Canada, have been looking into something called universal basic income. The general idea is that everyone receives a flat income from the government, regardless of employment status. If you can find a job, you can top up what you make in a month, but this will accommodate those who used to work in unskilled jobs who can no longer find work by keeping them afloat and not forcing unemployable people to go to a job centre every 2 weeks.
However, this idea has bene met with predictable resistance from those who believe that it is not the right time for a change in societal attitude. This typically comes from those who have been pushing for full employment for centuries. The argument they put forward is usually that people still found work after the industrial revolution, more often than not at desk jobs or in management roles, so why wouldn’t we survive this change? The answer is simple. There is only so far society can be pushed and the market can be squeezed until people fall out of the jobs market all together. Most experts say we are at that point now.
I firmly believe that in 25 or 30 years’ time, work as we think of it now will be a choice, not a requirement. Humans have spent their lives on this planet looking for ways to make our lives easier and more pleasurable. The big question is this. Do we want to live a life of luxury and choose what we do with our time, or should we stop innovating because the daily grind does us some kind of intangible good? Do we push for a societal change in attitudes to work, or would civilisation somehow collapse if people were actually left to get on with things they find rewarding in their life, whether we see those pursuits as meaningful or not? We cannot ignore this issue any longer. I vote for change.