On Saturday I was at a party and got chatting to a nice French chap who was involved somehow in environmental management. We had good fun bickering over climate change and pollution, but there was something else we discussed which is worth expanding on. He raised the question that many others are asking, which is what we’ll all do for work as technology makes jobs obsolete and there isn’t enough work to go around. What was interesting is he, like others, spoke as though this was something coming in the future whereas I replied that I can answer his question because the situation has already arisen.
Rather than look to a future in which robots do all the work, we can look backwards to the closure of the factories and mills and the decline of labour-intensive industries and blue-collar jobs and see what happened. From what I can tell, we’ve simply replaced those jobs with mass bureaucracy. Governments everywhere have made it central policy to get more women into the professional workforce, and for more people to go to university. Vast numbers of these new graduates entered jobs in government created largely to provide work for otherwise unemployable people, and they set about creating more work for themselves, i.e. expanding government. One method of doing this was to dramatically increase regulations with which private businesses and individuals must comply, thus forcing them to create their own bureaucracies in order to avoid non-conformity and prosecution. Thankfully, companies had no problem filling these positions thanks to hordes of new graduates with soft-skill degrees seeking cushy process-driven roles in air-conditioned metropolitan offices.
Every year the government bureaucracies grow, the number and complexity of regulations increase, and companies respond by employing ever-more people in roles related to “compliance”. This has been going on so long that it’s obvious many departments in large organisations – public, private, or third sector – exist purely to provide jobs for middle-class graduates. In other words, they’re part of a giant welfare system that few seem willing to recognise. I’d love to know, as a percentage, how many overhead jobs in modern organisations didn’t exist thirty years ago. You’d expect some jobs to change – especially those related to new technologies – but I’d be willing to bet most of these new positions are a result of ballooning government departments and whole armies of people necessary to navigate the current thicket of rules, regulations, and requirements.
It beats me why people are currently wringing their hands at the prospect of robots taking all the jobs, and worrying over how the work will be shared around when we’ve already found the answer: we’ll invent jobs, and pretend it’s real work.