The future of work, part 1

When Francis Pym ceased to be Foreign Secretary after the 1983 election, he wrote a book, The Politics of Consent, on which I collaborated with him. It briefly topped some best-seller lists. One of Francis’s main preoccupations was the impact of the technological revolution, then in its relative infancy, on the future pattern of our working lives. A chapter in the book was devoted to this topic.  

Now, the next phase of the technological revolution is upon us, with the enormous advance in artificial intelligence, the effects of which have barely been felt yet, and the consequences barely discussed. As a prelude to writing a blog about this, I re-read that chapter in Francis’s book. Much of it is as relevant today as when it was written thirty-four years ago, so much so that, as a preamble to my blog next week, I decided that this week’s blog would consist entirely of extracts from the chapter.

It is fair to say that the more pessimistic elements of Francis’s scenario have mostly not been realised, but neither have the more optimistic ones. Instead, we have muddled through, witnessing massive changes to our working lives without any clear sense of direction.

This was how things looked in 1983.

‘In the 1980s and beyond, the challenge is to move from highly mechanised – but still labour-intensive industries – to technology-intensive industries, while coping with the legacy of the recession, the further decline in many of Britain’s traditional industries, and new changes in the pattern of world trade… While economic patterns respond quickly to the imperatives of reality, social patterns change more slowly and reluctantly. In any period of great change, the danger exists that the two elements will break step…

‘The advance in computers, in robotics, in micro-chip technology generally, has meant that human functions can be performed by machines in a way that is out of all proportion to previous mechanical developments… Not only are more and more physical functions performed by technology, but what we used to think of as mental functions – functions of logic – are being performed by technology as well…

‘Who can doubt that this whole process, of which we are only now witnessing the beginning, will have the most profound influence on the working lives of everyone in this country, and indeed in the developed world? We are at the dawn of a change so momentous that it will force us completely to revise our traditional attitudes to employment and to how it is structured and organised…

‘New technology does not intrinsically create a growth in service industries, merely the opportunity for such growth. For the opportunity to be realised, there needs to be substantial economic growth. Services cannot be provided unless people can pay for them and nobody, whether individuals or businesses, will be able to pay for them without economic growth and a consequent rise in disposable income…

‘The core issue is not unemployment: it is the total number of working hours needed to produce what we can sell… Alongside the perennial factors of the creation and distribution of wealth is now a third major factor, which is most accurately described as the distribution of employment. We must change our attitudes to recognise that fact and what it means. The first thing it means is that the two most prevalent philosophies to deal with unemployment – laissez-faire capitalism and Socialism – are both inadequate…

‘I would like to think that, where we now read “unemployment at three million”, in years to come we may read “leisure time doubled for six million”. Indeed, instead of using the terms “employment” and “unemployment”, we might gradually learn to talk about “occupation” instead. That change would be the epitome of success, because we would have altered the entire way in which we think about our working lives. It will only be possible if we continue to create wealth. But if we do that, and if we then learn to share both employment and its rewards on an equitable basis, we have the makings of a different society…

‘For a long time after [the industrial revolution] had started, many of its supposed beneficiaries suffered reduced living standards. It took a long time for the benefits to be anything like universal, and for the other human and social problems to be tackled. It is unreasonable, and untenable politically, to tell people … that history will prove their fears to be groundless. We have hopes for the future, but we live in the present. People will not readily accept an indefinite period of hardship for the sake of posterity…

‘I cannot condemn … people who become alarmed and angry at their present plight. They are not Jeremiahs, because they express no opinions on the future, other than that they cannot see one for themselves. All they are saying is “help”…

‘Imagine the rows of terraced houses in the old industrial cities, towns and communities of the North and the Midlands, all built around the sites of now decaying businesses and housing a large proportion of the unemployed and their families. Few of them are likely to work in manufacturing industry again. How are they going to turn themselves into an army of service industry employees? To whom will they be offering a service? Who can afford services in the vicinity? How are they going to move elsewhere? Where are they going to live? What jobs will they find elsewhere? How are they going to do it, physically, mentally or spiritually?

‘We are in danger of creating a large section of the population that is permanently unemployed, living in communities of terminal decay. Computers may brighten innumerable classrooms, but they do not prevent many children from regarding school as a waste of time, life as a meaningless prospect and delinquency as the only tolerable pastime. This is not the sort of future that we want, that they want, or that they need have. But that future will become the reality unless we take action now.’