5.3 Work and Workers in the New Society

Automation and robotization do not simply influence institutions, as if the economy were an abstract entity that does not touch real people. On the contrary, large numbers of people are directly affected, for nearly every job that existed in the 1980s and 1990s could either change beyond recognition or vanish altogether within the working lifetimes of their holders--as had many jobs of the 1960s and 1970s already. As in the first Industrial Revolution, the effect of large scale robotization in the workplace will be profound, particularly in the transition years when the new industries are just becoming established. Service industries, the information sector itself, and the professions have so far done well to absorb new workers, shifting the balance of employment with relatively little pain. However, more rapid changes that appear to be in store for the future could overwhelm for a time the ability for society to cope with them.

At any time, there are three kinds of dislocation that may be experienced by workers whose jobs become obsolete. The most severe is outright termination, leading at least temporarily to unemployment. A worker's job may cease to exist because of automation, reduction in market share, or because the enterprise goes bankrupt. During stable times, the person may have a reasonable expectation of obtaining a nearly equivalent position with another company. However, in changing times those other companies are reducing staff, for the problems encountered by the original employer are common to the whole economy. Many jobs lost during the periodic downturns in economic activity are never regained; the companies involved each time introduce new techniques and new efficiencies to reduce their labour needs. As a result, North American structural unemployment (minimum levels during good times) has increased substantially during the last thirty years and seems destined to grow higher still. Indeed, the minimum rate at the top of the cycle may be well above six percent (nine in Canada; higher is some countries)--levels that until recently would have been regarded as unacceptable and warranting massive government intervention in the economy. In the long run, it can be reasonably expected that the number of new manufacturing sector jobs created during good times will be far fewer than the number eliminated in the bad times.

The second kind of dislocation is called displacement. This occurs when a worker's old job vanishes but there is immediate retraining available for a new position that has opened up because of the new technology. Here, the employer shifts and grows with the economy and, despite new technology, need not reduce the work force. Perhaps the employer also perceives a moral obligation to retrain current employees for new positions rather than counting on schools and universities to supply trained workers at no cost.

Alternatively, the worker may have the foresight, initiative, and imagination to seek appropriate retraining when the time is ripe. Such a worker may displace to another employer or industry or become a self-employed professional, but does so voluntarily and perhaps even with confidence. While such visionary and mobile workers were relatively rare in the past, they could well be the norm in the future.

Technically, a worker replaced by a machine is only displaced, for retrainability supposedly implies that everyone can find other employment. In practice, the displaced very often become unemployed because they (or their employers) are unwilling or unable to effect retraining. Semiskilled workers with a poor educational background and those who are relatively new to the labour force are the most vulnerable in such situations. It is often perceived (and was once stated as fact by Marxists) that there is little to restrain industrialists from seeking maximum profits while having no regard for the human consequences. Such a perception is a stereotype, for no business or economy could operate that way openly and indefinitely in a competitive marketplace. Too many valuable workers (and customers) would be alienated, and profits would eventually suffer.

A third kind of dislocation, job growth, is more subtle, for it may be visible only in retrospect. Here, the job holder and the job are mutually transformed over a period of time, often without anyone noticing that the original job no longer exists--the old job has been replaced by an entirely new one with no break in continuity. Although not always possible, this is the least traumatic type of dislocation and can bring a high degree of satisfaction to everyone involved. This kind of growth does not ordinarily take place by accident. Managers who wish to foster it must ensure that workers have a degree of independence and job control that enables them to plan their own change and growth as employment conditions demand. Rigid, locked-in job descriptions or contracts prevent people from learning new skills, whereas flexibility to meet the challenges of change foster such growth. These observations suggest a trend toward more flexible and educated workers, a more professional style of employment, and a correspondingly greater worker control over terms and conditions of the job. Adaptability to new environments would become the key to remaining employable.

As existing positions are metamorphosing or vanishing, many new ones are being created. The computing industry now employs millions of people with job descriptions that English lacked the vocabulary to write three decades ago. General affluence has resulted in large numbers of new jobs being created in the entertainment, tourism, and hospitality industries. Likewise, the global information and communications industries, the biochemical field, and space-based enterprises will soon employ millions who once might have worked in factories, and one can only guess at what their job descriptions will be. Certainly, few of them will be on production lines. Most will be administrators, office workers, information brokers, researchers, data handlers, medical personnel, computer operators, pilots, and the like. This reinforces the suggestion above that the new positions will be for technicians or professionals rather than for unskilled or semi-skilled laborers.

Thus, jobs and wages will continue to flow out of smokestack industries and into the service and professional fields. The holders of these new jobs will presumably make more money, expanding the demand for both goods and services. Perhaps most people will eventually be employed (or self-employed). However, depending on the speed at which robotization takes place, there could be a period of 16-24 percent unemployment in some countries. In the past, when unemployment reached such levels, riots, revolutions and great social unrest have occurred. Thus, the rise of modern-day groups of Luddites (machine smashers) or the establishment of totalitarian states in some previously democratic countries are possibilities that cannot be completely dismissed. Passions could run very high during such dislocations, and racial, religious, or political scapegoats could once again be sought. These possibilities (and natural human resistance to change) might argue for a slow transition to complete automation, but the market forces demanding quick action may be too powerful to be tempered by anything short of total societal collapse.

In the long run a higher percentage of people may be self-employed or work in what are now called part-time positions. Some predict that tourism, entertainment, and the arts will be the largest employers. Central governments may grow dramatically in size for a time, as they attempt to regulate or seize even more of the wealth and production. There may also be pressure on them to employ many of those displaced from market sector jobs, just to give them something to do. In the long run, however, government may become much smaller and less significant in the overall economy as some of its current functions become irrelevant. Any such changes could take place rather painfully, for the state never relinquishes power easily.

As in past transitions, new technology will demand changes in educational content and practice. The new work force will have to be much better educated and informed than in the industrial age, and the changes will be greater in relative terms than in the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society. Such education must be focused on the ability to change and adapt over a person's working years, for jobs may well come and go at a rapid rate--this may be at least a medium-term feature (if not a permanent one) of the information age. If most people are faced with changing jobs or professions repeatedly, they will have to be broadly educated beyond any narrow speciality in order to cope (Chapter 10 will cover the topic of education in detail).

If industry and government will be transformed, then so will the unions--the third institutional leg on which the industrial age has stood. These organizations were created to provide a means of representing relatively uneducated workers' interests to a possibly exploitive management. Some models of the information age suggest that in a society where it is difficult to keep secrets, cooperation may be easier to establish and confrontation may be frowned upon. New industries tend not to inherit either social baggage or technique from the old ones; they use a substantially different work force and often locate in different places.

According to Robert Blaumer (Alienation and Freedom) those in the new industries find their work more satisfying and less alienating than do those working in typical factory jobs. With the advance of technology, drudgery work is reduced or eliminated and work requiring a substantial intellectual component is created. Workers can become more skilled and achieve the high levels of job satisfaction that typified earlier types of craft occupations. Perhaps the difference is that people felt themselves to be servants when they tended the old machines, whereas in the new order, they perceive that the machines work for them. Of course, this analysis is true only of the larger picture. It tells us nothing about the many unskilled workers who become permanently alienated from employment when replaced by automatons and their small cadre of highly-skilled technicians. The latter have both education and jobs, and have every reason for self-satisfaction.

This satisfaction has other consequences. Workers in the newer industries, and in white-collar positions generally, have not joined their industrial counterparts by unionizing in any great number. The percentage of union members among all workers in North America peaked some time ago and has declined rapidly in recent years. There is every reason to suppose this trend will continue and even accelerate. Unions that merely hold onto their traditional power bases seem destined to gradually lose members and power. They may disappear as the jobs they now represent vanish. Others might change into consumer associations or find some other way to represent the interests of service-industry workers. Some observers predict that the traditional trade unions will not have any substantial influence in the long term. In the shorter term, certain unions may gain both members and power, depending on their circumstances. However, models of the information age seem to have little room for traditional industrial unions, so their survival may depend on a willingness to change substantially.

On the other hand, professional organizations, such as those representing nurses, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and so on could well be formed for computer scientists and other professional knowledge workers. In the 1960s and 1970s the job-description buzzwords were "technician" and "engineer;" for the 1980s and 1990s the buzzword has been "professional." To some extent professional organizations will be like unions for they will likely inherit some of their politics and a few business managers from the traditional labour movement. As they grow in influence and power, they could also come to resemble guilds with high entrance barriers and elaborate codes of what constitutes the proper practice of the profession. They might concentrate on raising their members' standing and status in the community, rather than on making strictly material gains. They might convey social status alone, and have little practical power. However these scenarios are speculative, for the formation, growth, and role of political parties, professional societies, unions, and other organizations is subject to too many unknowns to predict reliably. A single accident, scandal, malpractice suit, or election can make or break the power of any group. Thus, of unions and the like, it is only possible to say that, like all institutions, they must develop and change with society or vanish as they lose their vitality.

One thing that can be said with some assurance is that any such organizations whose sole interest is maintaining the status quo of their own power and influence will surely go the way of the butter churn, the horseless carriage, the keypunch operator, and the silent movie.

Changes in the workplace will not be confined to the industrial scene. Many office tasks that are today performed by the white-collar counterparts of the skilled factory worker will also become obsolete. The number of secretaries, receptionists, and clerks could decline dramatically as Metalibrary facilities develop. Past projections of the advent of a paperless office proved to be erroneous--there is now more paper than ever--but this was because the emerging technology was fitted into and used to promote existing ways of doing things, rather than providing new models for office work. This is to be expected of new techniques, which are generally used at first only to supplement existing practice and do not generate new ways until a certain critical mass is reached. This example also indicates the dangers inherent in making projections. All of them (including the ones in this book) are likely to be partly if not wholly wrong.

The Metalibrary (even as it now exists on a small and disconnected scale) does provide a new office model by making most paper files unnecessary, for it does obsolete many of the clerical jobs in countless offices, including most of those in the government sector. Such jobs are still done by people for two reasons.

First, the power and productivity of existing facilities for electronic data search, document creation, information storage, and paperless communication are only just being realized (i.e., the Metalibrary as it now exists is so new that it is being under-utilized).

Second, these facilities are still quite primitive. Problems to contend with include lack of universal connectivity, fragmentation of data storage, data inconsistency, and difficulty of existing interfaces to the Metalibrary. Before there can be a substantial impact on office routines, the Metalibrary must become completely connected, consistent, fully functional, easy to use, cheap, and offer access to all public databases and mailing systems. No lesser technology will suffice, for only a completely reliable, size-unlimited, ultra-fast and convenient facility with obvious competitive advantages over the filing cabinet can replace the office routine of the past. If it were made so, even microfilm would be unnecessary, for documents could be stored in a form reproducible on any terminal.

It would take decision makers some time to get used to a relatively paperless environment, but competitive advantages would overcome initial concerns about information security and loss. Backup systems in local versions and on the worldwide version of the Metalibrary would have to be extensive to earn the trust of decision makers. Use of the facimile machine, despite it consuming even more paper, was a step in the direction of the paperless office routine. Once people become used to the idea of carrying about and using light, portable devices that allow them to send and receive information anywhere and at any time, they will also demand much larger electronic storage capacity and other features that will eliminate paper consumption except when necessary.

Meanwhile, middle management may continue to be a casualty of workplace revolution, as each recession in the business cycle squeezes out more workers who have made it thus far. There is less need all the time for people to collect data and then filter and summarize it on paper for the attention of senior management. Already, decision makers can obtain such summaries and form projections on alternative decisions easily, more quickly, and more accurately from computers on their own desks (let alone from the Metalibrary) than they could ever get through relying on several layers of middle management. Improvements in the capacity to do such things only imperil more mid-level jobs. The task of doing such gathering and filtering will become more common than ever, and the time required will be less, because much of it can be automated. Decision makers will be the ones assigning meaning to the data; they will not need to rely on others to do it for them.

Not all of yesterday's senior management will survive the changeover. Those who fail to obtain the necessary technical skills for making computer-assisted decisions will join their less capable middle managers on the unemployment rolls, their places taken by those who have prepared for the move up.

There may also be less need for in-person meetings, except as an excuse to visit convention centres in exotic vacation destinations. For those people who do work at what are now called office jobs, the bulk of what they do could be accomplished at home rather than by commuting to a central location. Not all such face-to-face gatherings (meetings and communal offices) can be eliminated, for it is difficult to take a person's measure, to know who they are, and what their responses mean except by arranging a personal meeting. Today's executive is also quite dependent on the business lunch--an institution that can only be maintained by clustering offices in a central location, and one that would take some time to be abandoned. There is, in short, a need for some socialization in the conduct of business--one that machines will not fill, and therefore will not eliminate entirely.

Research for potential decisions can also be contracted out by the decision maker to experts who work with the Metalibrary, assembling the relevant data into the desired format, and collecting their fee without leaving home, seeing their employer, or even knowing who it is. Offers can be made on the Metalibrary for so much money in return for the solution to a particular problem within a certain number of hours. The solutions offered could be collected by yet another person and the contributors paid in proportion to the amount of their ideas that was actually used in the final decision. This is not much different from present practice, except in the means of communication, and except for the fact that the largest of the existing networks are non-commercial, so there is no monetary value in answering the questions of others.

Clearly, telecommuting of all types has some advantages for those who are involved: they can save time and money; those unwilling or unable to commute can work at home; and fewer cars, freeways, and office buildings are required. It also has disadvantages. It promotes isolation from other people, a loss of identity with the employer, and the holding of loyalties to oneself alone. Thus, futurists differ sharply when discussing forecasts of how large a percentage of the population will ever work at home. Those who focus on the advantages paint an idyllic picture of such a life and make extravagant projections indeed.

Your granddaughter does her job right from home. She's a teacher specializing in exceptionally bright children as well as severely retarded ones. She has never met most of her students face-to-face because they live all over North America. She's in contact with them daily by video link on an individual basis. She sets up their daily work schedules and programs their home learning computers with problems and exercises. She discusses their daily work with them and guides them through their individual problem areas. No computer can do that. Because of time zones, her work is over for the day and she has only to do tomorrow's session planning and student reviews before going to bed tonight. She's good at her work and is paid well--sometimes by parents, sometimes by local school boards, and sometimes by institutions. She and her students have the Central Data Bank available to them twenty-four hours a day. The little red schoolhouse has become the whole continent.
- Harry Stein in The Hopeful Future

Those who are more concerned with what they see as the dehumanizing and desocializing aspects predict that few people will ever make the home their workplace. Rozak (The Cult of Information) sees an eeriness in visions like Stein's--they are part of what he calls "megahype" employed by information industry people to sell products and increase the value of their company stock. The true future is probably somewhere between extreme visions--fewer offices, not none.

Any large-scale telecommuting would also have important demographic implications, for the need to build large cities to host vast armies of office workers could be greatly reduced. This would profoundly affect patterns of where people choose to live and how they travel. Cities that failed to attract new residents on the basis of living amenities would lose population rapidly, and some of them could well decline into ruin. Certain old-time industrial cities in the United States have already lost as much as 25 percent of their population due to the departure of the former industrial workers. If job loss at the office became as substantial, the effect would be both greater and more widespread.

The most important effects of telecommuting would be felt by workers themselves. Matters could be worst of all for those who have lived in the inner city--a group already at the lower end of the economic scale--who might find themselves even further disadvantaged. Those who lose jobs also lose status and dignity in a society that has traditionally measured people's worth by what they do for a living. What is more, much of the traditional strength of the middle class in the industrial age has been drawn from well-paid unionized factory workers (and lately from middle management). When these people lose their positions, they often find themselves unqualified for anything but very low-paying (sometimes part-time) service-sector jobs, and they suffer a dramatic decline in their standard of living. Here, for contrast, is Rozak's critical version of the vision of the empty office:

The fully automated office will do for white collar workers what the automated assembly line has done in the factories: it will "save" labour by eliminating it, starting with the file clerks and secretaries, but soon reaching to the junior executives and the sales force. Possibly these casualties of progress will find work at Burger King down the street, where the cash registers come equipped with pictures, not numbers, or as the janitors who clean up whatever there is left to clean up at the end of the day--at least until these jobs are turned over to robots. There may soon be no one left in the high-rise ziggurats of our cities but a small elite of top-level decision makers surrounded by electronic apparatus. They will be in touch around the globe with others of their kind, the only decently paid work force left in the information economy, manipulating spreadsheets, crafting takeover bids, transferring funds from bank to bank at the speed of light, arranging "power lunches." As time goes by, there will be less and less for them to do, for even decision making can be programmed...

At that point, even the corporate leadership will not have to report to the office. Most of what needs to be done by way of human intervention will be done out of the home. One forms an eerie vision of the high industrial future: a vista of glass towers standing empty in depopulated business districts where only machines are on the job networking with other machines.
- Theodore Roszak in The Cult of Information

Taking a more middle course, others forecast that those who would have jobs in the new order might simply work fewer hours for higher pay. Job sharing could become routine--one person working only four hours and someone else the next four. Or, a person might work seven hours a day for three days a week. More people would go into business for themselves, and fewer would use a time clock, because even in working for someone else, salaried contracts would be the norm and hourly wages the exception. Such people set their own hours, so those who earn their living through the Metalibrary would keep the system in continuous use around the world twenty-four hours a day.

The hope of the most optimistic is that the amount of wealth generated by those who choose to work will be so large that there will be plenty for everyone, and a guaranteed minimum income will by itself keep the world's population well supplied with both necessities and luxuries. Even as things now stand, the food problem is one of distribution, not of quantity. There are people starving to death in some parts of the world, but there are surpluses large enough to feed them in other countries. If the loss due to rats and insects alone could be eliminated, the net availability of food would increase by 30 percent worldwide. Of course, the optimists also assume the inherent goodness of humanity. They discount population growth and shifts, and take by faith that food production techniques will somehow adapt. They also discount tyrants, wars, famines and plagues as mere "accidents" in the inevitable upward spiral of progress. History is not really on their side.

It seems likely that underdeveloped nations will at first continue to experience high population growth as the available wealth increases. At some point, they could follow the industrialized West and have stable or even declining populations. For a time, present-day third-world countries would have to erect trade barriers to protect their human-run factories from the cheaper competitive products of the West's robotic plants. However, underdeveloped countries would experience both industrial revolutions in close succession, and at least some of them seem destined to catch up eventually, though perhaps at the cost of even more social upheaval than in the more developed nations.

High unemployment during the transitional time could cause severe social dislocations, rising crime, and the possibility of the new social order being cut off in violence and poverty before even getting started. There are other problems to overcome, and the new society will have its own difficulties as well. There will still be workaholics trying to get ahead. Some will still be bored or hate their lot in life and will always be dissatisfied. Despite the optimism of some observers, there will probably still be those who are richer and those who are poorer, and the rich will still have their status symbols and privileges, even if the means by which they obtain both is very different.

Is automation, then, a good thing? Perhaps, if by "good" is meant only an increase in the availability of material goods. It will also likely mean much more time for everyone to do what they choose, even if some of this free time is enforced by unemployment. If "good" means morally good, the answer is unknown, for although technological advances in general are anything but morally neutral, specific ones often turn out to have more "good" applications than others. This is something that is difficult to guess ahead of time even when the motives for developing the particular technology are known.

Some of the problems with automation have already been touched on in this section; in the next, certain of them will be considered in more detail. Some of the other implications of the new industrial revolution and of the role of automated machinery will be examined in Chapter 6.

Profile On ... Motives

Eight Reasons to Automate

1. To reduce overall costs

o If the cost (amortized over some number of years) of a capital purchase that replaces a worker is less than the wages and benefits that would be paid to the worker for the same number of years, then automation has a direct and irresistible effect on the bottom line.

NOTE: workers' fringe benefits may cost 30% of salary. Allowing for interest rates and maintenance, suppose it cost 30% of an initial capital expenditure per year of operation (amortized over ten years). Then, if the cost of the robot is less than ten years' salary, it is cheaper than the worker (Such figures may vary widely).

o Other savings can come from reduced heating, cooling, and lighting bills, for robots can work in harsher environments. They do not need lunch rooms, vending machines, recreational facilities, company social events, or daycare facilities -- all these affect capital as well as operating costs.

o The more widespread the use of robots, the lower the cost of making them, and the more cost effective it becomes to use them. Some manufacturers use robots to make robots. Computers already design robots, and the human input is decreasing.

o Wages go up with inflation. The principal cost of servicing a capital loan is fixed, only the interest rate and maintenance charges are affected by inflation.

2. To eliminate unreliability

An automaton can be programmed to do the required task exactly the same way every time producing a higher quality and more uniform product. (e.g., welding)

3. To overcome a shortage of skilled labour

At times, workers with particular skills may be in short supply, and those who are available command high wages. It is usually easier to make or reprogram more machines on short notice than it is to get more skilled workers quickly.

4. To achieve results that would be impossible manually

o Hazards: Remote robotic manipulators can work close to the core of a nuclear reactor, or with very hot or cold parts. Some can work in the vacuum of space, in poisonous gases, or underwater.

o Strength: They may be built to lift heavier parts or apply more force or pressure in an assembly than could a human.

o Precision: They can be designed to work on a microscopic scale with a precision that a human cannot achieve.

5. To increase output from a given factory floor area

It may be possible to place robots closer together or run them faster than is practical for human workers. In places where space is at a premium (e.g., Japan) this may be the most important consideration.

6. To lower inventory

o A faster assembly line implies that fewer of the raw parts are tied up in the process.

o If inventory of finished product grows too large, a robotic assembly line can be closed down simply and cheaply, and re-started easily. The cost of either with human workers can be very high.

o Robots may be employed in the warehouse to achieve efficiencies similar to those obtained by the ones on the manufacturing floor.

7. To improve flexibility

o It may be easier (and cheaper) to reprogram a robot than to retrain a human worker.

o The more capable such machines become, the more feasible it is to use them for small volume production runs, and even one-of-a-kind or made-to-order manufacture.

8. To improve market share

Anything that reduces costs and improves efficiency and quality relative to the competition in related industries can increase market share. Improved sales can lead to other economies of scale, further reducing costs.

Is Automation Inevitable?

"In any repetitive manufacturing process, 95% of the shop-floor work-force can be eliminated ... Manual skills will no longer be marketable as such." -- David Bell (Employment in the Age of Drastic Change)

"robotization now seems imperative for car manufacturers if they wish to remain competitive."

"So we move towards the factory that has just one man and a dog: the dog is there to make sure no one touches the machinery, and the man is there to feed the dog!" -- Christopher Rowe (People and Chips)

"Eventually, robots could do all the robot-assembly work, assemble other equipment, make the needed parts, run the mines and generators that supply the various factories with materials and power, and so forth. -- Eric Drexler (Engines of Creation)

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises