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A new furrow. The changing nature of work and what that might mean for the future

March 25th, 2018

Imagine, if you will, that you are a horse. Take that extra step and imagine that you’re a horse capable of reasoning, a Houyhnhnm if you will. As you stand in your stable at the end of the day, imagine you are reflecting on your species’ relationship with humans. It got off to a poor start, with humans seeing you as a food source. Fortunately, humans in general saw greater possibilities in you, learning that you could be a far greater source of power than they could manage on their own.

The partnership endured for millennia. It worked well on both sides. Whenever humans needed more power, they needed more horses. Humans sorted out food and shelter, and mostly took good care of their power source. Through thick and thin, humans and horses stood side by side. Until they didn’t.

From the horse’s perspective, it all broke down following the industrial revolution. It broke down in two conflicting ways. First, humans devised mechanical means for dispensing with equines as a power source. And secondly, in the short run the need for living horse power for those who could not afford the mechanical means increased to the extent that the caring relationship between humans and horses broke down for many. You can see traces of this in the donkey sanctuary adverts on TV – poor humans in the developing world cannot afford to care properly for the animals they get to work for them (though I question whether the donkeys should be the priority for help).

Let’s return from Gulliver’s Travels to present day human life. For at least two centuries soothsayers have made predictions that industrialisation would destroy jobs. And during that period, the jobs market has inexorably expanded. John Henry’s hammer ultimately lost out to the steam-drill, but we have always found new uses for humans. Some jobs were destroyed by industrialisation – “computers” used to be human beings until surprisingly recently – but more were created as a result.

As the horses found out, however, past experience, even when it has been accrued over millennia, does not always act as a guide to future experience. This time it’s different are reputedly the four most expensive words in the English language. But we cannot exclude the possibility that this time might be different for us too.

Humans might currently be enduring the same contradictory pull that horses faced in the nineteenth century of industrialisation leaving them behind and yet being needed for ever more low quality work elsewhere. Simultaneously Britain has record-breaking levels of employment and record-breaking numbers of articles about how robots are going to steal all the jobs.

Both might be true reflections of current reality. Wage growth in Britain has been anaemic for years, despite those record-breaking levels of employment, record-breaking numbers of vacancies and 40 year historic lows for unemployment. The jobs being created are evidently not of great quality (at least not in monetary value terms).

We have to conceive of a point where machines do not create new work for humans but instead subtract from the human labour required. That point may not have been reached yet but at some point it surely must be, when machines can perform a sufficient proportion of the tasks that people can perform at least as effectively as humans. That day looks quite close at hand now. What will then happen to humans?

Right now, the fruits of mechanical and computing labour are taken by the owners and shareholders of the businesses that use them, with almost none going to the people whose jobs they are displacing. That worked in a system where enough of those people move to new jobs where they have good prospects of advancement and are able to participate fully in society.

If that system has ended, however, then in the long run that arrangement is going to be unsustainable if the owners and shareholders of those businesses do not come to comprise a far larger class than they currently comprise. There are many, James Kirkup and Chris Dillow included, who believe that we have already reached that point. Even the most gung-ho laissez faire capitalist should pause to consider the implications of that. The coming political debate is not about how to share the proceeds of growth but about how to grow the number and size of those shares.

Even as socially Britain has moved sharply to the right on an anti-immigration wave, economically Britain looks to be moving to the left. Jeremy Corbyn has captured this mood for many. Theresa May has been criticised by some in her own party, when stealing Ed Miliband’s old policies, for failing to make a stand for free market values. In fact, she is ahead of her critics on this occasion. Free market values are only going to be preserved if their advocates can come up with a format that enables enough people to participate properly in the free market.

Ultimately, in the twentieth century horses were completely replaced as means of power in Britain. Humans in this country now use them largely for recreational purposes only. The lives of horses nowadays in Britain are pleasant, with them well-fed and well cared-for. You might not be enthused by castration if you’re expected to jump over the fences but otherwise life for a horse in Britain today is generally sweet.

There are, however, far fewer horses than there used to be. Figures are hard to come by but it seems that in the later part of the nineteenth century there were more than 3 million horses in Britain. Today there are something like 1.3 million.

Maybe that points the way ahead for humans too in the long term. If there is not the need for so many of us to work, we will find a way to incentivise ourselves to reduce our populations. Our heirs would live untroubled and fulfilling lives, but there would be fewer of them, as we pass the baton of civilisation onto machine-based intelligence. At that point we become the last domesticated animal.

Alastair Meeks