For the last fifty years, our lives have continually adapted and improved with the advances of technology and automation. During the post-war years, this advancement was mutually beneficial to labour and employer. The development of machinery led to higher production which led to an increase in wages. Yet as the twentieth century ended and next began the advancement of technology has only helped to increase capital while wages (in real terms) have fallen. There is now a very clear and present danger that automation and robotics will develop at such a rate that the Bank of England predicts that machines may take over up to 50% of jobs in Britain and the US.
In The Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford explains why the threat to human labour by technology has suddenly become a daunting prospect. So citing Moore’s Law, which states that over the history of computing hardware the level of advancement has doubled every two years with the effect that as we’ve progressed over time the more advanced computer hardware has become, the quicker the next breakthrough comes.
Those who have been paying attention will notice this starting to occur. Go into most supermarkets and you’ll find self-service checkouts where cashiers used to be, Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s now employ touch screen order boards in many of their establishments. Farm work, in particular fruit picking is now increasingly done by robots, with new visual perception software. Many politicians have written this off as a non-issue, removing low skilled, low waged service jobs allows workers to retrain and seek better opportunities. This only works if there are better, higher paid jobs provided.
The job market is becoming more crowded, with life expectancy growing, retirement ages rising and a worldwide population expected to reach 9bn in coming decades means that thousands of new jobs need to be continually developed just to cope with the current labour market. This is what JFK meant in 1963 when he said: ‘To even stand still, we have to move very fast’.
Ford describes the current labour market as a jobs pyramid, which reflects why half of UK graduates are unable to find anything other than what would be described as ‘non-graduate work’. This has led to the growing inequality in our society as 95% of total income gains between 2009 -2012 went to the top 1%. The question we all need to therefore ask is how will we be able to produce enough jobs to keep an ever growing population working? Not only that but a society based on who has jobs or doesn’t have jobs is far more likely to further increase inequality, thus, allowing the richest to maintain control and have less pressure exerted on them to produce progressive policies.
It is clear there is a need for both long- and short-term plans to be set out. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders plan to increase vocational training and creating employment through infrastructure are positive steps. Yet these measures will only provide short-term relief against an oncoming technological tide.
It seems the most attractive and logistical proposal is to introduce a basic income. This would result in an income given to all on an individual basis without means testing and condition. Through this everyone will have a safety net allowing us to alleviate poverty, end extreme poverty and homelessness and eradicate income inequality.
It is time now for this discussion to be given the importance it deserves. While politicians dance around, moving chess pieces one space around the board, a radical shift is fast approaching that they are either too blind too see or too concerned with the next opinion poll to care. Short- and long-term plans must now begin to be put in place to ensure we are ready for the advanced pace of the continuing technological revolution and that we have invested in education, developing infrastructure, and most importantly developing an affordable safety net for those who no longer find their labour of worth. This would be a step towards combatting a society which has and will continue to get more unequal, with more extreme poverty and despair; and for an economy currently incapable of maintaining the equilibrium of production and consumerism. If we don’t begin to move to address this now, I fear it may be too late to even stand still.
Allan Grogan is the former convenor of Labour for Independence and a political activist