Saturday, 3 June 2017

Do we understand work anymore?

WORK: for many a four-letter word, for others the epicentre of their existence but for most of us just another necessary evil. Work is how we get the stuff we need to buy stuff and keep the kids in fidget spinners (replace with current craze). For some, it is in all too short supply and barely covers the basics for others it absorbs all our waking hours. It affords us prestige and position, for most a source of frustration. But do we really understand what work is any more. I say not.
Now, my old favourite, Plato (I always put him in, it makes me look smart… is it working?) suggested the principle of specialisation. This means that each of us should stick to what we are good at, traders trade, farmers farm and philosophers sit around telling everyone what to think. Du Monceau in his riveting work The art of the pin-maker used pins to explain how Plato’s ideas could be taken even further. Adam Smith continued the pin-making motif (It was nails, actually but I like continuity) in The Wealth of Nations to show how these jobs could be split up to make great improvements in productivity, Henry Ford used this to create the production line so he could employ less and less skilled people at much lower cost to produce a very complicated product. In other words, give someone something very simple to do over and over and he will be good at it while not having enough scope to demand more money.
In the 1970s mechanisation had reach a point where many foresaw a time when machines would take over the pin-making and we would all enjoy unprecedented leisure time. A logical progression considering that the 1938 Holiday and pay act had provided the first paid holidays for workers. Very soon the idea of being paid even on days when one does not work became a standard. So, the concept of working a 3 or 4 day week while still being able to support a family did not seem to be an unreasonable progression. The computer age should have accelerated this but it didn’t.
It was realised that just as Plato had suggested, everyone should stick to what they did best. And as Adam Smith had concluded, that this was good for the wealth of the nation. So, workers work, employers supply this work, education keeps pace with the supply of the workers that the employers need and the government keep the whole machine oiled with taxes.
Work is a simple exchange of time for money, the more valued your time, in other words, the rarity and desirability of your time, the more money you get. But, we also had a system that would ensure that our needs were catered for and the 5 evils of society under control. This means that everyone contributes what they can to the nation to ensure that everyone’s needs are catered for and amongst those needs are healthcare, security and leisure. Leisure is important to keep the balance right, each part of the machine should contribute, not dominate. At its heart a society which progresses human development and evolution.
Meanwhile a lady called Brownie Wise would change the way we would work for ever. She realised that Tupperware could be sold more effectively through direct marketing. She gave women the opportunity to earn some pin-money (pins again) by monetising their friends, but also these ladies were self-employed, outside the machine. A straight line can be drawn from there to app-builders today. So, now if you don’t have a job it is not because the employers are failing to provide it or the education system is failing to prepare you for it, it is because you are just not enterprising enough. Plato and Smith had agreed that you really should stick to what you are good at and we are not all entrepreneurs. This new ideology also absolves the government from the position it had worked so hard to establish of taking care of its population’s needs. Globalisation had allowed it to supply employers with workers by simply importing them as they would washing machines. They no longer needed to produce and you’ll see that most advanced nations have a skills deficit which they are happy to maintain because it is cheaper to import.
Here is the shift. Governments are now working to the needs of the employers, not its population. They continually tell the population that it must tighten its belts and forgo some of the luxuries of the so recent past, free higher education, healthcare and leisure time. They should continue to pay the taxes to support the system but should expect less for it. Business should be above all else. If we accept this we can all return to times of plenty for all. But expectations are being slowly readjusted. You must take on more of the responsibilities that were once provided by the nation. You need to do many of the things you are not so good at or pay someone to do them, if you can.
Now, businesses have discovered a new way to make money. Instead of making and selling pins, they can make money through the markets. Their stock value is the real route to success and all resources should be focused on maintaining a healthy market value. The pin-making is just a utility to this end. To increase the market value companies must make more money and this means higher efficiency which depends on cheaper labour expenses.
Workhouses 21st century
We live in the tech age and as the industrial revolution mechanised production, the tech age will automate almost all areas of the company’s operations. Artificial intelligence is rapidly out-pacing the abilities of the lesser educated and their jobs are in imminent danger. When was the last time you interacted with ebay or amazon, did you get the feeling that you were not talking to a person, interactive chat services are passing the Turin test on a daily basis and they are getting better every day. Call-centres were outsourced to India and other cheaper countries and it is one of the biggest industries in the Philippines but many returned because customers complained of the lack of communication, AI will do better and cheaper. Many of us shop online. We go to shops to try on the clothes and then order the same product, cheaper through the net. Some retailers have realised this and use their stores to close the sale and give customers incentives to order from them online after trying on the garments. As more and more of us get used to buying stuff without any interaction with a shop assistant, the retail fronts could be booths where you try on and order for delivery to home. No more shop assistants or call centre workers, next. Autonomous vehicles will soon be able to get us back from the pub after a skin-full, safely and legally. They may also have been serving our pint. They will also be able to drive our Uber, black cab, bus, train or truck they are even working on drone deliveries that will make postmen and pizza delivery boys obsolete.
Online education courses will increase the abilities of educators to be decentralised to begin with but will soon be surpassed. There are also robots that allow surgeons to operate on patients from thousands of miles away. These too may be surpassed by AI. Technology in conjunction with our diminished reliance on personal, human interaction will make all this seem quite normal. Just imagine, many of your facebook friends could be replaced with AIs and you wouldn't know the difference.
So, a whole bunch of menial jobs will disappear, so what? This could be great. The same thing happened after the industrial revolution and that saw rise to the welfare state. More leisure, more education, more interesting jobs. However, in order to develop the skills necessary to do these jobs, you need education and skills are a supply and demand market. To stem the flow of capable people, education costs and a great education costs a great deal. People are going into careers with a huge debt around their necks and to make the payments that are working harder. The information age makes them more available, more of the time. And those who don’t make the grade, well they’ll be left outside the wall and there will be no workhouses to ‘save’ them, no busses to drive, no call centres to man.
Work has always been a way to provide. First we worked our patch of land, hunted in the forests to feed our families. Then with the division of labour, it became a team effort and we evolved into a species that lived more and better. Work is a medium of distributing the wealth of nations. Each getting on with what they do best, no matter how little or how much. Each paying into society and communities to benefit from its prosperity. Work is not the reason for living. We hold ourselves superior to the ants and the bees. Quality of life is progress, servitude is devolution. Without it, children are not parented properly, communities do not have cohesion, we open ourselves to exploitation from those who would take from us, whether they be corporations or gangs of muggers.
“I’m working” is a phrase too often heard, it means I am being productive, useful, I have purpose. The same should be true of “I’m taking the kids for a ramble” or “I’m going to the neighbours for a drink.” Work is part of the equation, not the sum.


“In a hyper-real postmodern world, fact and fiction have become confusingly indistinguishable” Hunter S. Thompson

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