I have mentioned the rational optimist Matt Ridley a few times already (start here), and I do so again with great pleasure. He has written a piece for The Times that has much the same title as the one above, and you can read it also on his website. I like it partly because I enjoy his breezy style, and partly because I remember having discussions about this issue with the late Fred Gruen, who taught me a great deal about the interconnection between economics and politics.
I still take the view that technological change does provide new jobs at the cost of the old, and that those who are displaced are rarely the ones who get the new jobs. The talk (from Labor) on the day I wrote this post was about how the Government had banished the car industry and what would happen to the skilled and semi-skilled workers who would no longer be making cars. I guess some of them may in the future be assembling cars from components brought in. I don’t know, and at the moment I doubt that anyone does.
Ridley’s little essay looks more at the macro side of things, and from a longer view. The paragraph that grabbed me, as a historian, goes like this:
In the 1700s four in every five workers were employed on a farm. Thanks to tractors and combine harvesters, only one in fifty still works in farming, yet more people are at work than ever before. By 1850 the majority of jobs were in manufacturing. Today fewer than one in seven is. Yet Britain manufactures twice as much stuff by value as it did 60 years ago. In 1900 vast numbers of women worked in domestic service and were about to see their mangles and dusters mechanised. Yet more women have jobs than ever before. Again and again technology has disrupted old work patterns and produced more, not less, work — usually at higher wages in more pleasant surroundings.
I mentioned the shift in agriculture in a recent post of my own. What Ridley says about Britain applies equally to Australia. Over my working lifetime I have seen Australia move into manufacturing from agriculture, then into service, then into what was called ‘the quaternary sector’ (mobilising information in the interests of efficiency), and now into the quinary sector (culture, health and research). Australia has become wealthier — three to four times since the 1950s — and our workforce is much bigger and better paid. What is there to fear — over the longer run?
Ridley offers what he sees as a current anxiety, which is that the fearful are the clever people themselves, who see technology as replacing them. As computers get smarter and smarter, who will need them?
… there’s a sort of frisson running through the chatterati now that people they actually know might lose their jobs to machines, rather than the working class. Indeed, the jobs that look safest from robots are probably at the bottom of the educational heap: cooks, gardeners, maids. After many years’ work, Berkeley researchers have built a robot that can fold a towel — it takes 24 minutes.
He’s great fun, isn’t he! And he’s not worried, though people like him (and me) have to be included in the chatterati — and I’m no more worried than him, because there’ll still be a place for a solitary blogsmith tapping out his ideas and thoughts. And there’s more to our confidence than sheer self-interest.
If we are reaching the point where robots could do almost anything, what is there left for people to do? To this I suggest two answers. The first is that we will think of something. Half the new professions that are thriving today are so bizarre that nobody could have predicted their emergence — reflexologist, pet groomer, ethical hacker, golfball diver. In a world where androids run supermarkets, you can bet that there’s a niche for a pricey little shop with friendly salespeople. The more bulk services are automated, the more we will be willing to pay for the human touch as well.
I didn’t find the pointer to his second answer, though it is probably that we have more time now to do what we would like to do, if we are not given over to the need to work, work, work. He puts it this way:
Technology liberated us from that precarious and awful world. If it does so again, so that our grandchildren never have to think in terms of “jobs” at all, but merely in terms of how they can fill their days fulfilling their wishes and helping others, mixing bits of work with bits of leisure, while drawing on the output of Stakhanovite machines for income, will they envy us our daily commutes and our office politics?
He doesn’t think so, and nor do I. But, back to the beginning, governments cannot ignore the displacement of workers, because workers are voters, and because the communities in which they live will all suffer if they become unemployed, and there are even more voters in the communities. So I think we can expect government of all kinds to be loud in their talk about ‘packages’ and ‘plans’, while the rest of us thank our lucky stars that we are somewhere else.