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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

mechanical aids.

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

traditional industries.

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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