21st century Luddite

Published

Caption: Quality Mag

Joseph Hutchinson and Jamie McDonald
Writers

Cast your mind back to the 2008 Disney-Pixar masterpiece, WALL-E. 29th century Earth was not quite the Utopia humankind had hoped for. The population of the starship Axiom were propped up by hovering mobility devices, presenting a comical, if not alarming, vision of the monotonous future that awaited if we pursue all-out automation. WALL-E’s playful themes serve to demonstrate the sombre real-world implications of a system that fails to stop short of where it ought to. If asked what the reason would be for our species to wave goodbye to the Earth, would you answer automation? I most certainly would.

Since the early 2000s, self-checkouts have been used by supermarkets and retail giants to make the shopping experience quicker and more pleasant for customers. There are an estimated 325,000 self-checkouts at work globally in 2019. Though the retail industry is growing steadily, there are thousands of job losses every year. According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), there were 72,000 fewer jobs in 2019 – a 2.3% decrease from 2018. The BRC state that, “Retail is undergoing a period of profound transformation driven by changing consumer behaviours and innovative technologies.”

Automation of the retail sector has had a significant impact on the jobs of those doing unskilled work. Even skilled workers, such as butchers, have had their jobs cut recently by supermarket, Tesco. They are easily replaced by meat packagers and cutters in factories elsewhere, allowing Tesco to cut costs in an effort to streamline its operations. This move to hollow out the workforce may prove profitable, but the impact on workers of the future remains unsettling. In 2005, the journalist Jessica Adler noted:

“What you’re looking at is what the structure of the workforce looks like in the future: decreased hours, decreased benefits eligibility. You might have had 10 full-time jobs before, now you have 15 part-time jobs.”

Adler contends that by whittling away roles in an attempt to cut costs, future generations will lose out owing to the loss of opportunity. We can readily apply this notion to the trucking sector, which is arguably a backbone of the global supply chain. In the United States and Europe, the demand for haulage has increased substantially following mass unemployment in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. This has resulted in a shortage of truckers, especially within the USA.

As of 2018, the American Trucking Association (ATA) has stated that nearly 62,000 positions remain unfilled, which was an increase of 10,000, relative to 2017. In a 2015 study, the ATA predicted that there will be a shortage of over 174,500 drivers by 2024. The life of a trucker has often been characterised as monotonous – working long hours and travelling miles on an annual mean wage of $46,230 – a job that most would find difficult. Therefore, it is not a leap to suggest that the job description deters potential drivers.

Propositions to combat the deficit have covered ideas from lowering the minimum driving age to increasing pay. One of the ATA’s key solutions would be the introduction of automated trucks. This is seemingly counter-productive for an organisation that solely focuses on trucking. Automation, after all, is detrimental to the workforce, similar to the aforementioned self-checkout scenario. Nevertheless, ATA advocates self-driving trucks, as its primary focus remains to fill the deficit caused by a lack of truckers. The result of following through with plans could be damaging to the sector in terms of worker’s rights, continuing the dangerous precedent set by retailers shunning employees in lieu of profit. It appears to be a long-term solution to a short-term problem.

Despite the seemingly dire situation, the ATA has recently published findings that “There are 7.8 million people employed in trucking-related jobs”, up 100,000 from the previous year. This is due to the industry-wide push to recruit new drivers. It was proposed in 2015 that 89,000 new truckers per year till 2025 should subdue the deficit. Therefore, the industry seems to be on track to redemption. Political turmoil and real-world problems always have the chance to impede growth. The ongoing American-China trade war has the potential for a negative impact on the slow recovery made by the sector.

The dawn of automation looms ever closer for trucking all around the globe. With Daimler’s Freightliner already being tested on public highways in Nevada, and Tesla in the process of launching a semi, there has already been a major shift in manufacturer attitudes towards automation in the freight space. It may be argued that this is simply an evolution of humankind, with the pursuit of progress to the point where we no longer have to engage in menial tasks. However, this is not the most apparent outcome of automation, with the trucking industry likely to undergo significant structural unemployment as a consequence of this process.

Part of the solution to a process forcing through mass unemployment may involve halting automation halfway. In a similar vein to security guards, the driver would be on hand at all times to assist in the handling and management of goods being transported, assisting where conditions are not adequate for the vehicle’s systems. There is scope within this framework for drivers to engage in self-improvement, via the development of new skills in the IT space as vehicles continue to become more computer centred.

An alternative solution to structural unemployment may lie in the concept of universal basic income (UBI). The idea is simple; we are suffering from low productivity in jobs, which workers are often overqualified to do. A transformation of industry is leaving vast swathes of the population with financial instability and economic anxiety. We can partially remedy this by guaranteeing income to every single citizen of a country, to meet basic amenities. In guaranteeing people a minimum level of financial solvency, they are afforded the freedom to retrain if they lose their job, open up a business, or even take longer to find a suitable role without the financial burden that has traditionally been associated with this. Simply put, it protects individuals from the exogenous shocks that often derail the day to day of thousands.

UBI’s most prominent champion is Andrew Yang, who has ascended from fringe entryism in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination to something of a political threat as a virtually single-issue candidate. His entire campaign has centred around universal basic income; $12,000 given to every American, $1000 a month, no questions asked. This style of universal basic income has risen in support in part thanks to Andrew Yang, but also from a plethora of support ranging from right-wing economists such as Milton Friedman, to tech-billionaires such as Richard Branson and Elon Musk and even Marxists such as Yanis Varoufakis. It’s seen as the best solution we have to the existential crisis looming over us of job automation by AI-decimated industries, such as trucking.

There is, however, good reason Yang is currently the only candidate who supports this policy. Just as its popularity comes from a broad political spectrum, so does its opposition. Some on the left claim it’s a plaster to fix a gaping wound in Europe and North America, and that major structural reform to the economy is the best solution to the problems that universal basic income claims to solve. Opponents on the right claim it’s a wildly expensive and inefficient use of taxpayers money. With UBI estimated to cost 20-30% of GDP in some countries, giving away so much to every person in a country, particularly in cases where many do not need assistance, seems illogical.

Academically, the results are inconclusive. Trials in Canada and Finland were not extended by conservative governments, with a trial of universal basic income in villages still ongoing in Kenya. The trial in Finland, which gave 550€ per month to a group of unemployed people, found that it made the trialists happier but didn’t necessarily increase their employment prospects. Within Scotland, UBI has gained support within the SNP, meaning you, the reader, could be receiving your free government dividend within the next 10 years.

Like all policy, it’s not perfect, but it is a solution to the problem of the upheaval caused by automation, which is absolutely worth considering. It doesn’t necessarily tackle inequality, and it’s expensive, but it’s great for peace of mind, overall happiness and raising the standard of living. With the backlash of the 2008 crisis, and the instability it caused, having disastrous political consequences, ensuring every single citizen of a country an absolutely guaranteed minimum level of financial stability is a worthwhile goal to pursue.

As much as the Luddites of the 19th century may have cursed whoever invented the stocking and cropping frames they would ultimately vandalise, I benefited from reforms that kept me in school and out of the workforce in my early adolescence. The gains achieved via a process of automation, if effectively implemented, could facilitate a shift in attitudes towards work which emphasises an individual’s personal interests over their economic utility. However, much like the life of a Georgian Luddite, the process of structural unemployment that spans from automation is unlikely to yield benefits for those directly impacted. The distant nature of a universal basic income means that individuals will be faced with the hard consequences of unemployment. Yet, although the livelihood of truckers may evaporate, the march of human progress persists. Humans grow, evolve, and ultimately move ever closer to being saved by a sentient rubbish truck.