The oppressed worker: Is automation and recession destroying us?

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An increased use of automation and the global recession has left many of us with a higher workload and lower pay, all while facing higher living costs. With nothing set to change, we ask when enough will be enough.


In 1930, British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a paper entitled ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’, in which he argued that future generations would be working no more than three days a week thanks to the miraculous achievements of science and compound interest.

He envisioned a world where we would spend most of our time on leisure activities, with what little work was required being shared equally by all.Accumulating wealth simply to be wealthy would no longer be admired, and cut-throat, morally dubious business practices would be abandoned.

Here in 2014, the grandchildren of Keynes’ contemporaries are having grandchildren themselves, but we’re no closer to his vision of the future.

Instead, automation is causing jobs across a variety of sectors to vanish and the global recession has resulted in lost jobs and high unemployment in much of the developed world.

For those of us who are still in work, things aren’t much better. Many of us are faced with doing the same work that would have previously been performed by a team of many, often while being paid less than before.

Worse still, many companies refuse to provide yearly pay increases, meaning our salaries dwindle year-on-year while the costs of housing, transport, goods and services rise.

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Is worker oppression getting worse?

According to some analysts, the situation is set to get worse, with the cost of living near to work in big cities soaring. In London, the city’s transport chief recently warned that overcrowding on the city’s transport networks could get so bad that low-paid workers living on the outskirts are unable to make it into work on time.

“The stakes are pretty high. If you’re not able to increase transport capacity, and people find accessing work impossible, you risk social unrest,” said Sir Peter Hendy, head of Transport for London, in an interview with the Guardian. Other major cities will also face similar problems if not enough is done to meet future capacity.

The growing use of robots in many industries is also a source for concern. A recent survey of 2,000 AI experts by Pew Research found that the industry was split over the prospect of job loss as a result of automation.

“A number of the respondents warned that this aspect of technical evolution will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable and the possibility of breakdowns in the social order,” the organisation said.

The inability to buy a home may also cause long-term problems. Many younger workers are over a decade away from being able to buy a place of their own unless they are lucky enough to receive help from family members, which in the long term will help to feed a sense of financial insecurity and further the gap between homeowners and renters.

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Is technology to blame for the job squeeze?

Technology has played a key part in the problems that many workers face, and not just because of its direct replacement of jobs.

Productivity software and apps, together with mobile internet and smart devices, have made it possible for one individual to do more work in and out of the office, meaning that the most successful workers have to be multitalented in a way never previously required. This may not seem like such a bad thing, but it means workers have to expend considerable chunks of their leisure time developing new skills to keep up, further adding to work-related stress.

It also has made it possible for us to be ‘at work’ anywhere. While this can be potentially useful – it could allow us to work from home and avoid a pricey and exhausting commute – it often results in work bleeding into leisure time, without us even noticing. Many employers don’t trust their employees to work from home, but are more than happy for them to put in extra hours or respond to emails in the evening.

Ultimately the technological advancements that Keynes thought would free us from work have in fact bound us more tightly to it.

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Enough is enough: when will it end?

The sense that enough is enough is in some ways already palpable. The Occupy movement, focused around the 99% railing against the one percent, has received considerable media attention and support in cities across the globe. However, it has done little to change anything.

Business owners and property magnates largely remain the same people, and the 99% have no more power than before Occupy happened.

If things do get worse, however, civil unrest could become more common and that is a development that, if disruptive enough, could force meaningful change.

It is likely that different countries would respond differently: in places where protests and strike action are fairly common, such events would be far more likely, but in countries where these measures are uncommon or frowned upon, the situation would need to be far worse before anything occurred.

There remains, however, the possibility that technology will ultimately save us. The internet is a powerful tool to enable people to achieve, and it still has a lot of development ahead. The potential for technology to aid entrepreneurialism could result in a greater shift towards small businesses, or even a radical economic change.

Some have even predicted a move towards a universal basic income – guaranteed for all regardless of working status – to prevent a lack of employment being a problem.

In reality, though, if things don’t get any worse there is a chance that they will never get any better either. We will continue to put up with poor working and living conditions in the hope that we will eventually become the ones in charge.


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