Meanwhile, in Canberra... #3

Meanwhile, in Canberra ... heads remain in the sand atop the automation cliff

Before you could go through each day without any need to talk to anyone in person thanks to technological automation and intervention, there were some pretty menial tasks that people got paid to do.

Not just the kind that Henry Ford made possible with the development of the production line, where a person would be tasked with screwing in a screw what would have seemed like a million times a day. We all seem to know people from our parents’ generation who entered the workforce doing some pretty tedious stuff, limited skill required.

Sadly, it’s pretty hard to find a job in mostly office-bound Canberra that would involve separating pages from a tractor-fed printer these days, or working as an assistant in an architect’s firm tasked with writing the names of objects on plans with a Rapidograph pen and miniature stencil.

We’ve got technology that can do that for us now. The stakes are higher to gain employment.

A typing pool is more likely an exciting art installation of typewriters submerged in water in a makerspace in San Francisco, than an integral part of day-to-day communication and administrative work.

But before we all get terribly excited about a new dawn on the age of leisure, where knock off time is brought forward and start time is pushed back, there’s some politics to contend with.

Jobs have always been politically convenient. Those in power like to be seen to be creating jobs — take a look at Donald Trump’s Twitter — and those who would like to be in power like to point out that those who are aren’t creating jobs. It’s very predictable.

Remember the 2016 budget? The era of “jobs and growth”, a political catchphrase that sounds fantastic, is what voters want to hear and is yet somehow totally devoid of meaning by itself. The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, boasted of the results this year. There were 400,000 jobs created in 2017 and 75 percent of them were full time.

But wage growth is stagnant and many predict we’re heading towards a cliff: the future of work is far from certain and we should be doing more to think about what having a job and being employed will look like in the future. No wonder the Australian Council of Trade Unions launched a “Change the Rules” campaign, the largest since the “Your Rights At Work” campaign of WorkChoices-era, in response to four years of stagnant wages in Australia.

But it’s not the only part of the story. In 2013, David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, described what he called “bullshit jobs” in Strike! magazine. “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states, such as the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as it had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat),” he wrote.

“Bullshit jobs” are things like telemarketing, public relations and unnecessary layers of administration which don’t add anything to the actual delivery of a service.

Since then, the gig economy — ad hoc employment for single tasks epitomised by Uber drivers and people scurrying about on Deliveroo bicycles — has continued to undermine old notions of what it meant to have a job.

Young people predominantly make up those in casual employment, often working in jobs around university commitments. It offers flexibility while they study. But if casualisation continues to creep into industries where once an employee could have expected benefits and security, we’re in strife.

New data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that 32 per cent of people who were looking for work in 2011 are now employed full-time. Only 17 per cent of people who weren’t in the labour force in 2011 were employed full-time in 2016.

You have the greatest chance of getting a full-time job if you’ve already got one. For the rest of us, it’s getting tougher. We’re working longer hours for less in insecure positions.

In November last year, the McKinsey Global Institute declared in a study of 46 countries, which considered 800 different professions, that 800 million jobs would be replaced by automation in little over a decade.

So how are we going to support ourselves?

There’s the utopian model of universal basic income living, where we’re free to make stuff, think stuff and do stuff. Heading in that direction, though, would require us to get off our current course of intense work culture, where worthiness is pegged directly to busyness.

In reality, it looks like we’re heading towards a job-starved market where our generation is forced to work across as many casualised positions as possible, never certain where the next pay cheque is going to come from. Already, there are academics, journalists and people in service industries who live like this.

After considering this, hearing how the government talks about innovation doesn’t suggest they’re ready to confront what seems to be coming.

The then minister for industry, innovation and science, Arthur Sinodinos, told a conference in May 2017 that we “have to be optimists”.

“I know some people now ask ‘should we be a bit scared because innovation means that jobs are going in some areas’, but jobs are growing in others,” he said.

New jobs were being created that we “we have no idea” about, Senator Sinodinos said. “This is the lesson of history. This is the lesson of technological progress.”

In politics, saying that we “have to be optimists” is a bit like putting your head in the sand and hoping an issue will go away.

The trouble is, it doesn’t look like the job dilemma is going to correct itself. It might pay to give it some attention.



Jasper Lindell is Woroni’s political columnist and a former news editor