Brian Stableford and David Langford on Automation, Unemployment and Retraining in the 21st Century

Over the past year there have been a number of warnings that within the next three decades, 2/3 of all jobs could vanish due to mechanization. The science fiction writers Brian Stableford and David Langford also cover this projected crisis in their fictitious history of the thousand years from the beginning of this century to the end of the 29th, The Third Millennium (London: Paladin Grafton Books 1988). They predict that governments and society will find a solution to this in life-long learning and direction of the unemployment into the construction industry for a massive programme of public works.

They write

Massive Unemployment in the West
By the year 2000 automation was having such a significant effect on manufacturing that unskilled and semi-skilled workers were being made redundant in large numbers. Less skilled holders of ‘white-collar jobs’ were also being displaced by information technology. There seemed no immediate prospect of redeploying these workers, and their increasing numbers were a source of embarrassment to many Western governments. In the Soviet countries, where employment was guaranteed, jobs were found, but it was becoming all too obvious that many of these were unnecessary. The communist countries had other problems too. The political power to redeploy labour easily was there, and the educational system was better equipped than in the West for practical training, but there were no economic incentives to motivate the workers.

In the West the real problem was p0artly economic and partly educational. Allowing market forces to govern patterns of employment was inefficient. It was not that there was no work – there were chronic housing problems in most of the affected nations, and the need for urban renewal was desperate. Unfortunately, there was no institutional apparatus to divert unused labour to these socially desirable but essentially unprofitable tasks. To pay workers to do such jobs, instead of doling out a pittance to compensate them for not having jobs, would have required massive and politically unacceptable increases in taxation. The educational part of the problem was the absence of effective retraining to allow people to switch easily from one semi-skilled task to another, thus allowing the movement of labour into the new areas of employment.

With hindsight, it is easy to see the pattern of changes that had to occur in both systems, and it may seem ridiculous that it was not obvious what had to be done. In fact, it probably was obvious to many, and the patterns of change were directed by common sense, but there was much superstitious resistance to the evolution of the economic system away from the capitalist and communist extremes.

Lifelong education
The educational reforms were easier to implement in the West than the economic reforms (though even education tended to be dominated by tradition, and was certainly not without its superstitions). it became accepted in the course of the early twenty-first century the adaptability of labour was a priority. It was simply not sufficient for an individual to learn a skill while still at school, or during an apprenticeship, and then to expect his skill to remain in demand throughout his lifetime. By the year 2010, the idea that a man or woman ought to have a single ‘educational phase’ early in life was becoming obsolete in the developed nations, and educational institutions were being adapted to provide for people of all ages, who would visit and use them continually or periodically, by choice as well as by necessity. By 2050 there was an almost universally accepted opinion in the West that ‘an education’ was something that extended over an entire lifetime. The old familiar clichĂ© ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ was now beginning to take on a musty air, like something in Chaucerian English, approaching its near-incomprehensibility to the average citizen of today.

Enforced growth of the public sector
Despite the robotization of many manufacturing processes, the demand for manual labour did not decline markedly during the twenty-first century. To some extent, displaced factory-workers were shifted into various kinds of building work in the private sector. But it was the expansion of public sector construction and maintenance that kept the demand high. There were, of course, special opportunities created by the building of the information networks, and much manual work as a result of flooding, but there was a more fundamental reason for the state’s increased need for manual workers. As society became more highly technological, depending on an ever-increasing range of complicated artefacts, more and more work had to be put into reconstructing and repairing the artificial environment. Because maintenance work, unlike most manufacturing processes, is occasional and idiosyncratic rather than ceaseless and repetitive, it cannot – even to this day – be whole turned over to machines. Machinery is vital to such work, but so are human agents. Governments employed more and more people to do centrally organized work, and collected the taxes they needed to do it.

There were no such redeployment prospects for the redundant white-collar workers. As their jobs disappeared, they had to undertake more radical retraining, and it was mostly these workers who moved into such new jobs as were being created by the spread of the information networks. Their skills had to be ‘upgraded’, but the same was true of the manual labourers, who had a least to become more versatile. The working population as a whole needed to be better educated, if only in the sense of being always able to learn new skills. Relative few individuals lacked the capacity for this kind of education, and the vast majority adapted readily enough. (pp. 98-100)

I’m not sure how realistic the solutions Stableford and Langford propose are. Looking back, some of the book’s predictions now seem rather dated. For example, the book takes it for granted that the Communist bloc would continue to exist, whereas it collapsed in eastern Europe very swiftly in the years following the book’s publication.

I also think the idea of lifelong learning has similarly been abandoned. It was very popular in the late 1980s and the 1990s, when higher education was expanding rapidly. But there has certainly been a reaction against the massive expansion of university education to the extent that half of the population are now expect to acquire degrees. Critics of the expansion of graduate education have pointed out that it has not brought the greater innovation and prosperity that was expected of it, and has served instead to take jobs away from those without an academic background as graduates are forced instead to take unskilled jobs.

I also think that it’s highly debatable whether the expansion of the construction industry on public works would compensate for the jobs lost through further mechanisation. Even if the government were to accept the necessity of raising taxes to finance such ‘make work’ programmes. My guess is that they’d simply carry on with the ‘workfare’ policy of forcing the unemployed to work on such projects as were strictly necessary in return for their unemployment benefit.

As for the various retraining programmes, some schemes like this have been tried already. For example, back in the 1990s some councils ran programmes, which gave free computer training to the unemployed. But I can see any further retraining schemes launched in the future being strictly limit in scope, and largely cosmetic. The point of such programmes would be to give the impression that the government was tackling the problem, whereas in fact the government would be only too eager for the situation to carry on as it is and keep labour cheap and cowed through massive unemployment.

I also don’t believe that the jobs created by the expansion of information technology will also be adequate to solve the problems. To be fair, the next paragraph from the passage above states that these solutions were only partly successful.

Of course, this situation could all change over the next three decades. But I can see no real solutions to the increasingly desperate problem of unemployment unless neoliberalism is completely discarded along with the Tories, Lib Dems and Blairite Labour, which support it.

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