Gwynne Dyer | Navigating an automated future
The main message of 2016 was that we are entering a period of economic and political upheaval comparable to the industrial revolution of 1780-1850, and nothing expressed that message more clearly than Donald Trump's appointment of Andrew Puzder as secretary of labour. Even though it's clear that neither man understands the message.
Puzder bears a large part of the responsibility for fulfilling Trump's election promise to "bring back" America's lost industrial jobs: seven million in the past 35 years. That's what created the Rust Belt and the popular anger that put Trump in power. But Puzder is a fast-food magnate who got rich by shrinking his costs, and he has never met a computer he didn't like.
"They're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age-, sex-, or race-discrimination case," he rhapsodised. They also never take lunch or toilet breaks, they'll work 24 hours a day, and they don't have to be paid. So out with the workers and in with the robots."
It was not evil foreigners who 'stole' most of those seven million American jobs, and will probably eliminate up to 50 million more in the next 20 years. It's the 'intelligent machines' that did most of the damage, starting with simple assembly-line robots and ATMs. (Every Automated Teller Machine contains the ghosts of three bank tellers).
This is change on the scale of the (first) industrial revolution, and you can't fight it. But then, you really don't need to. American industry has shed seven million jobs since 1979, but the value of US factory production has more than doubled (in constant dollars). It is only jobs that are being destroyed, not wealth.
It is not a disaster for a rich society to reach a point where the same goods are being produced and the same services are being provided, but most people no longer have to work 40 or 50 hours a week (in jobs that most of them hate). Or rather, it's not a disaster unless having no work means having no money or self-respect.
The main political task for the next generation (post-Trump) in the developed countries will be to ensure that those without work have an income they can live on, and don't lose their self-respect. Other ways will doubtless be suggested, but one way of achieving this that is already getting attention is a Universal Basic Income (UBI).
The UBI would provide everybody with enough to live on. Since everybody got it, there would be no stigma involved in living on it. And 53 per cent of today's jobs will still be there in 2033, so those who really wanted to work could top up their UBI with earned income. There would still be millionaires.
The first national referendum on UBI was held in Switzerland last June. It was a radical new idea, so, of course it was overwhelmingly rejected. But this idea will not go away, and there will be more like it. The rich countries can stay rich and stable if they understand the nature of the task, but the developing countries may face a grim future.
No UBI for them they are not rich enough, not even China. But automation is eating into their newly gained industrial jobs, too. A recent Citibank report estimated that 77 per cent of Chinese jobs are at risk from automation, and in India there is talk of "premature deindustrialisation" (i.e., industrial jobs in India may be peaking right now, and will then go into decline).
That would not just mean continuing poverty for many, but huge political turmoil - populist revolutions and super-Trumps. The future (including the near future) will be quite interesting.
- Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. Email firstname.lastname@example.org