An End to Employment (1998)

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The most important factor in Canada's changing economy today is the permanent downsizing of the labour force through “labour saving” technology.

Sales force automation, syndicated selling, laboratory automation, warehouse management systems, automated booking, automated tellers, on line banking, automated underwriting, automated front desk clerks — all these “systems” have no other purpose than to reduce staff. “Saving labour” means eliminating wages, holiday pay, pension plans, security, careers, a future. It may also mean eliminating our ability to exist as a cohesive society.

We are learning to tolerate higher and higher levels of unemployment. Since the Second World War, unemployment has steadily risen, averaging 4.2 per cent in the 1950s, 5.1 per cent in the 1960s, 6.7 per cent in the 1970s, and 9.3 per cent in the 1980s. In the 1990s, it has hit peaks of 11 per cent. For youth, unemployment stubbornly stands at more than double that figure.

Why is this? Because up until now, technology has been capturing jobs, but now it is beginning to capture entire occupations. Corporate travel agents, medical lab technicians, printing trades, warehousemen and sales staff are examples of 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.

Conventional wisdom has it 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. Not true. Automation is eliminating service occupations faster than it did manufacturing jobs. Why? Because service tasks are simpler, thus more easily automated.

Unless corporations are stopped by a 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 (that's “occupation,” not “job”):

• Storing, filing and retrieving;

• Monitoring, analyzing, accounting and reporting;

• Middleman work such as booking, selling, ticketing, dispensing, shipping, and receiving;

• Making transfers of money, mail, stocks, or information;

• Issuing information policies that consumers can just as well request from a machine. The list will grow as “systems” get better at doing our work.

No occupation, not even computer programmer, is immune. If any of these job descriptions fit you, watch out.

Consider this also. Automation leads to centralization and centralization knows no boundaries. Just as corporations centralize, so do economies. U.S. management theorist Peter Drucker recently suggested in The New Realities what this should mean to Canadians. He pointed out that the United States is now the only country with sizable service exports. Soon the country will be the hub of all automated, on line, remunerated services. In the same way that companies squeezed out workers, so U.S. services will squeeze out “hinterland” economies. Already Canada's unemployment rate is typically twice that of the United States. Unless the trend towards automation is stopped, the only significant employment pool left may one day be in the U.S. Just as the Canadian worker has been displaced, so may the Canadian economy.

In 1993, Business Horizons magazine said, “We are moving rapidly toward a ‘post service’ society . . . What appears to be happening is no less momentous than the end of industrial society as we know it and the dizzying arrival of a new type of society with a far different economic base. . . . We are witnessing what may be the permanent downsizing of the human work force.”

Automation is not a bug; it is a virus that will spread throughout our population. Statistics Canada reports that consumers are growing poorer and financing their purchases out of debt rather than income. Because robots and “systems” do not buy goods and services, they may some day be producing them without buyers. Then corporations themselves will begin to fall.

When that point comes, it will be no easy matter to put people back to work. They will be technologically obsolescent, the frontier of productive knowledge having passed them by. The solution to the structural unemployment problem will not be as easy as a simple infusion of government cash.

We have tacitly agreed among ourselves to earn our keep by working. An honest day's wages for an honest day's work, full employment — these beliefs have formed our social contract. If we undermine work, we undermine the entire basis of our peaceful existence together.

Expect government revenues to continue shrinking. Robots do not pay taxes. But the people they replace still require social services, even as they are less able to pay for them. After all, life will go on for the unemployed. But a trend is not a law. We will permanently downsize the work force only if we allow it. If we stand firm in demanding that public policy not permit the permanent downsizing of the Canadian work force, then in time we will collectively find a way to reverse this trend.

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