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Technology and the Future of Work
Every society creates an idealised image of the future – a vision that serves as
a beacon to direct the imagination and energy of its people. The Ancient Jewish
nation prayed for deliverance to a promised land of milk and honey. Later,
Christian clerics held out the promise of eternal salvation in the heavenly
kingdom. In the modern age, the idea of a future technological utopia has served
as the guiding light of industrial society. For more than a century utopian
dreamers and men and women of science and letters have looked for a future world
where machines would replace human labour, creating a near workerless society of
abundance and leisure. (J Rifkin 1995 p.42)
This paper will consider developments in technology, robotics, electronic
miniaturisation, digitisation and information technology with its social
implications for human values and the future of work. It will argue that we have
entered post modernity or post Fordism, a new age technological revolution,
which profoundly effects social structure and values. Some issues that will be
addressed are: elimination of work in the traditional sense, longevity, early
retirement, the elimination of cash, the restructuring of education, industry
and a movement to global politics, economics and world government.
In particular this paper will suggest that the Christian Judao work ethic with
society’s goals of full employment in the traditional sense is no longer
appropriate, necessary or even possible in the near future, and that the
definition of work needs to be far more liberal. It argues that as a post market
era approaches, that both government and society will need to recognise the
effects of new technology on social structure and re-distribute resources, there
will need to be rapid development of policies to assist appropriate social
adjustments if extreme social unrest, inequity, trauma and possible civil
disruption is to be avoided.
Yonedji Masuda (1983) suggests we are moving from an industrial society to an
information society and maintains that a social revolution is taking place. He
suggests that we have two choices ?Computopia’ or an ?Automated State’, a
controlled society. He believes that if we choose the former, the door to a
society filled with boundless possibilities will open; but if the latter, our
future society will become a forbidding and a horrible age. He optimistically
predicts our new future society will be ?computopia’ which he describes as
exhibiting information values where individuals will develop their cognitive
creative abilities and citizens and communities will participate voluntarily in
shared goals and ideas.
Barry Jones (1990) says we are passing through a post-service revolution into a
post- service society – which could be a golden age of leisure and personal
development based on the cooperative use of resources.
Jeremy Rifkin (1995) uses the term ?The Third Industrial Revolution’ which he
believes is now beginning to have a significant impact on the way society
organises its economic activity. He describes it as the third and final stage
of a great shift in economic paradigm, and a transition to a near workless
information society, marked by the transition from renewable to non-renewable
sources of energy and from biological to mechanical sources of power.
In contrast to Masuda, Jones and Rifkin, Rosenbrock et al. (1981) delved into
the history of the British Industrial Revolution, and they concluded firmly that
we are not witnessing a social revolution of equivalent magnitude, because the
new information technology is not bringing about new ways of living. They
predicted that we are not entering an era when work becomes largely unnecessary,
there will be no break with the past, but will be seeing the effect of new
technology in the next 20 years as an intensification of existing tendencies,
and their extension to new areas.
I suggest that Rosenbrock may come to a different conclusion with the benefit
of hindsight of changing lifestyles, 15 years later, such as the persistent rise
in unemployment and an aging society.
Population is aging especially in developed countries and will add significantly
to a possible future lifestyle of leisure. Most nations will experience a
further rapid increase in the proportion of their population 65 years and older
by 2025. This is due to a combination of the post war baby boom and the advances
in medicine, health and hygiene technology with the availability and spread of
this information. Governments are encouraging delayed retirement whereas
businesses are seeking to reduce the size of their older workforce. The
participation rates of older men has declined rapidly over the past forty years
with the development of national retirement programmes. In many developed
countries the number of men 65 and older who remain in the workforce has fallen
below ten percent. Due in part to technological advances there are more older
people and they are leaving the workforce earlier. Thus this body of people will
contribute to the growing numbers of people with more leisure time. (Clerk 1993)
Professor Nickolas Negroponte (1996) of the MIT Media Lab, points out that in
percentage per capita it is those people under seventeen years of age and over
fifty five who are the greatest users of the Internet, and that the Internet
and other information technologies encourage democracy and global egalitarianism.
Furthermore he envisions a new generation of computers so human and intelligent
that they are thought of more as companions and colleagues rather than
Jones (1990) points out a number of elements relating to the adoption of new
technology that have no precedent in economic history and suggests that there is
a compelling case for the rapid development of policies to assist appropriate
social adjustments. He points out that manufacturing has declined as the
dominant employer and that there has been a transition to a ?service’ or post
industrial economy in which far more workers are employed in producing tangible
and intangible services than in manufacturing goods. The cost of technology has
fallen dramatically relative to the cost of human labour. Miniaturisation has
destroyed the historic relationship between the cost of labour and the cost of
technology, allowing exponential growth with insignificant labour input, which
is leading to the reduction of labour in all high volume process work. Sargent
(1994) points out that in Australia during the last decade, the rich have
become richer and the poor poorer: the top 20 per cent of households received 44
per cent of national incomes in 1982, and by 1990 this had risen to 47 per cent.
But the top 1 per cent received 11 per cent of incomes in 1982, and this rose to
21 per cent in 1990. Meanwhile unemployment continued to increase.
Jones (1990) further points out that the new technology has far greater
reliability, capacity and range than any which proceeded it. Microprocessors can
be directed to do almost anything from planning a school syllabus and conducting
psychotherapy to stamping out metal and cutting cloth. It is cheaper to replace
electronic modules than to repair them and the new technology is performing many
functions at once and generating little heat or waste and will work twenty four
hours a day. The making and servicing of much precision equipment which required
a large skilled labour force has been replaced by electronic systems that
require fewer workers.
The relationship between telecommunications and computers multiplies the power
of both, the power for instant, universal communications is unprecedented,
consequently the influence of any individual economy to control its own destiny
is reduced. All advanced capitalist nations and many third world and communist
blocks are now largely interdependent, this has led to an international division
of labour and the growth of the multinational corporations. The global economy
is rapidly taking over from individual nations.
The adoption of each new generation of technology is increasing and is rapidly
becoming cheaper than its predecessor. Technologies developed in the 1960s have
seen rapid rates of development, adoption and dissemination. Less developed
countries can now acquire the new technologies due to the rapid decrease in cost,
and the combination of their low wages and the latest technology make them
formidable competitors in the global market. Almost every area of information
based employment, tangible services and manufacturing is being profoundly
influenced by new technology.
Jones (1990) notes that few economists have addressed the many social
implications that stem from the development of science and technology. Most
economists’ thinking is shaped by the Industrial Revolution and they are unable
to consider the possibility of a radical change from the past, they give no hint
that Australia has passed a massive transition from a goods based economy to a
service base. Attempts to apply old remedies to new situations are simply futile.
Jenkins (1985) disagrees with Jones and argues on behalf of the traditional
economic model suggesting that it will continue to work well in the new era and
the facts do not support any causal relationship between automation, higher
productivity, and unemployment. He claims that it cannot be emphasised too
strongly that unemployment does not stem from the installation of new technology.
He says it is the failure to automate that risks jobs and the introduction of
new technology will increase the total number of jobs. Further, he suggests
that the primary reason for introducing new technology such as computer
controlled robots is to reduce costs and to improve product quality and that
lower costs mean lower prices. This results in increased demands for goods and
services, which in turn generates higher output and employment and profits. He
suggests that higher profits induce higher investment and research and
development expenditure whilst the domestic producers of robotics and
microelectronic based equipment increase output and employment. He sees the
greatest problem simply in the need for occupational restructure of employment,
as the need for software experts, computer programmers, technicians and
engineers are likely to sharply rise.
Rifkin (1995) like Jones believes that the old economic models are
inappropriate in the ?Third Industrial Revolution’ and describes views similar
to Jenkin’s as “? century old conventional economic wisdom” and ” ? a logic
leading to unprecedented levels of technical unemployment, a precipitous decline
in purchasing power, and the spectre of a worldwide depression.”
It is questioned whether Jenkins’ solution of re-training will be able to
replace all displaced workers. Educator Jonathon Kazol (1985) points out that
education for all but a few domestic jobs starts at the ninth grade level. And
for those, the hope of being retrained or schooled for a new job in the elite
knowledge sector is without doubt out of reach. Even if re-training and re-
education on a mass scale were undertaken, the vast numbers of dislocated
workers could not be absorbed as there will not be enough high-tech jobs
available in the automated economy of the twenty-first century.
A British Government backed study by Brady and Liff (1983) clearly supported
this view. They concluded that jobs may be created through new technology, but
it will be a very long time before the gains could offset the losses from
Even the neo-classical economists continue to subscribe to traditional economic
solutions, yet they have been met with stiff opposition over the years. In Das
Kapital, Marx (McLelland 1977) predicted in 1867 that increasing the automation
of production would eliminate the worker altogether, and believed the
capitalists were digging their own graves as there would be fewer and fewer
consumers with the purchasing power to buy the products.
Many orthodox economists agreed with Marx’s view in many respects, but unlike
Marx, supported the notion of ?trickle down economics’ and said that by ?
releasing’ workers, the capitalists were providing a cheap labour pool that
could be taken up by new industries that in turn would use the surplus labour to
increase their profits that would in turn be invested in new labour saving
technology which would once again displace labour, creating an upward cycle of
prosperity and economic growth.
Such a viewpoint may have some validity in the short-term but one must consider
the longer term effects of such a cycle, it is questionable whether it could be
Another important question is whether consumerism will continue unabated,
whether it is a normal human condition to see happiness and salvation in the
acquisition of goods and services. The word “consumption” until the present
century was steeped in violence. In its original form the term, which has both
French and English roots, meant to subdue, to destroy, to pillage. Compared
with the mid 1940s the average American is consuming twice as much now. The mass
consumption phenomena was not the inevitable result of an insatiable human
nature or a phenomenon that occurred spontaneously, quite the contrary. Business
leaders realised quite early that they needed to create the ?dissatisfied
customer’, and to make people ?want’ things that they had not previously desired
(Rifkin 1996). Nations throughout the world are starting to understand the ill
effects that production has on the ?natural’ environment, and the acquisition of
goods and services on the psyche. With more people with less money, and a trend
towards a lifestyle that emphasises quality rather than quantity, it is
questionable whether consumerism will, or is desirable, to continue.
Science and technology’s profile grew to such an extent in the early part of
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