Opinion (Robert Skidelsky, Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University, fellow of the British Academy in history and economics, member of the British House of Lords): “What impact will automation – the so-called ‘rise of the robots’ – have on wages and employment over the coming decades? Nowadays, this question crops up whenever unemployment rises.
“In the early nineteenth century, David Ricardo considered the possibility that machines would replace labor; Karl Marx followed him. Around the same time, the Luddites smashed the textile machinery that they saw as taking their jobs.
“Then the fear of machines died away. New jobs – at higher wages, in easier conditions, and for more people – were soon created and readily found. But that does not mean that the initial fear was wrong. On the contrary, it must be right in the very long run: sooner or later, we will run out of jobs. …
For those who dread the threat that automation poses to low-skilled labor, a ready answer is to train people for better jobs. But technological progress is now eating up the better jobs, too. A wide range of jobs that we now think of as skilled, secure, and irreducibly human may be the next casualties of technological change.
As a recent article in the Financial Times points out, in two areas notoriously immune to productivity increases, education and health care, technology is already reducing the demand for skilled labor. Translation, data analysis, legal research – a whole range of high-skilled jobs may wither away. So, what will the new generation of workers be trained for?
Optimists airily assert that ‘many new types of job will be created.’ They ask us to think of the lead drivers of multi-car road trains (once our electric cars join up ‘convoy-style’), big data analysts, or robot mechanics. That does not sound like too many new jobs to me. …
“It is not true that automation has caused the rise of unemployment since 2008. … If escape from poverty is the goal, disguised unemployment is a bad thing. But if machines have already engineered the escape from poverty, then work-sharing is a sensible way of ‘spreading the work’ that still has to be done by human labor.
“If one machine can cut necessary human labor by half, why make half of the workforce redundant, rather than employing the same number for half the time? Why not take advantage of automation to reduce the average working week from 40 hours to 30, and then to 20, and then to ten, with each diminishing block of labor time counting as a full time job? This would be possible if the gains from automation were not mostly seized by the rich and powerful, but were distributed fairly instead.
“Rather than try to repel the advance of the machine, which is all that the Luddites could imagine, we should prepare for a future of more leisure, which automation makes possible. But, to do that, we first need a revolution in social thinking.”
My Comment: The revolution in social thinking can be done only by introducing universal education for a new type of society with respect for others, work distribution, that is, in teaching the conditions of existence in an integral community.