Published on February 12th, 2014 |
by Bill Burton
Image © billboard.com 2013
Automation of services presents great opportunities for our society
Last week workers in London tube stations went on strike leading to mild pandemonium. The merits of the strike and whether transport workers in major cities should be allowed has been widely debated elsewhere and as such I will not revisit it here.
The strike comes in opposition to proposed reforms of the ticketing system, 80 per cent of tickets are now bought using Oyster cards leaving the utility of ticket offices being questioned. Holding off reforms is only delaying the inevitable reduction in hours available for workers at the stations. Some staff will always be needed to provide advice and guidance, but the distribution of tickets will become increasingly automated.
This situation is not unique to the tube workers, across different industries increasing use of automation means workers are being required less often. In agriculture tractors and combine harvesters now operate via GPS tracking, cars are mainly built by high tech robots and supermarkets are using self service checkouts increasingly. All allow for greater profits for the companies, cheaper products for consumers and fewer jobs available. It is clear that men simply can’t compete with mechanised machines, the precision and efficiency of the latter being far superior in so many cases
Influential economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that industrial and technological developments would mean workers would be able to work less hours, affording greater time for learning and leisure. This has not came about, workers have longer working days than ever before by taking on greater workloads across different areas. The growth of the service sector since Keynes’ writings has provided other avenues for work, but his point still largely stands – work hours could be vastly reduced. Philosopher Bertrand Russell was a keen advocate of reducing work hours, claiming in an essay ‘In praise of idleness’ that major societal problems are caused by a lack of knowledge, understanding and patience that could be prevented by removing the burden of long hours.
The implications of increasing automation are huge for young people, certain jobs will cease to exist. Though this need not be a negative. Reducing the workload on citizens could give them more free time to pursue hobbies, sports or learning and consequently lead happier lives. The issue of how to manage this transition looms large, with reduced capacity for workers surely comes reduced equal distribution of wealth? Not necessarily, introducing a universal basic income would be one way around this by ensuring all members of society had enough money to get by – then supplementing it with additional work as they so desire. It would have the additional benefit of reducing the unhelpful view of welfare recipients as scroungers. In the 1970’s a Canadian city introduced a basic income for all citizens, working hours dropped by a modest 1 per cent for men and 3 per cent for women. Mental illness reports went down, job satisfaction went up and hospital visits were reduced showing the benefits that can occur under such a system.
Paying for such a system would take some creative accountancy under our current system. With a basic income of £10,000 per person costing roughly £490 billion out of total expenditure of £720 billion. A universal basic income would require a radical redistribution of wealth to work and such policy is far from either political debate or the public consciousness at this time, despite the top 1 per cent of earners having the same amount of wealth as the bottom 60 per cent. There is the wealth available to pursue such a policy, increasing automation may ultimately lead to its introduction as the need for workers diminishes further. As a country we should embrace this, removing the need for dull monotonous labour and allow people to pursue their own interests.
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