It’s also quite scary when you consider that we’re entering an era of technological unemployment. More and more jobs are being automated: they aren’t going to provide money, social validation, or occupation for anyone any longer. We saw this first with agriculture and the internal combustion engine and artificial fertilizers, which reduced the rural workforce from around 90% of the population in the 17th-18th century to around 1% today in the developed world. We’ve seen it in steel, coal, and the other 19th century smokestack industries, which at their peak employed 30-50% of the population in factories—an inconceivable statistic today, even though our net output in these areas has increased. We’re now seeing it in mind-worker fields from law (less bodies needed to search law libraries) through architecture (3D printers and CAD software mean less time spent fiddling with cardboard models or poring over drafting tables). Service jobs are also being automated: from lights-out warehousing to self-service checkouts, the number of bodies needed is diminishing.
We can still produce enough food and stuff to feed and house and clothe everybody. We can still run a growth economy. But we don’t seem to know how to allocate resources to people for whom there are no jobs. There’s a pervasive cultural assumption that people who don’t work are shirkers or failures, rather than victims of technological change, and this is an enabler for populist politicians who campaign for support from the frightened (because embattled) working majority by punishing the unlucky, rather than admitting that the core assumption—that we must starve if we can’t find work—is simply invalid.
I tend to evaluate the things around me using a number of rules of thumb, one of which is that the success of a social system can be measured by how well it supports those at the bottom of the pile—the poor, the unlucky, the non-neurotypical—rather than by how it pampers its billionaires and aristocrats. By that rule of thumb, western capitalism did really well throughout the middle of the 20th century, especially in the hybrid social democratic form: but it’s now failing, increasingly clearly, as the focus of the large capital aggregates at the top (mostly corporate hive entities rather than individuals) becomes wealth concentration rather than wealth production. And a huge part of the reason it’s failing is because our social system is set up to provide validation and rewards on the basis of an extrinsic attribute (what people do) which is subject to external pressures and manipulation: and for the winners it creates incentives to perpetuate and extend this system rather than to dismantle it and replace it with something more humane.
To mark World Book Day on Thursday, an annual festival celebrating books and reading, children dress up as their favourite characters and interview their respective authors. Hetty Feather and Diamond interview Jacqueline Wilson; Varjak Paw chats to SF Said; and Barry Loser quizzes Jim Smith. Watch the video