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Donkin on Work - Work Futures

May 1996 - Death of the work ethic

The Protestant work ethic is such an enduring and persistent ideal that it underlines virtually everything we do in our jobs. Questioning the view that hard work is the foundation of a successful life is such a heresy that I hesitate to suggest it may have almost run its course.

Richard Cumberland, an 18th-century Bishop of Peterborough, once summed up the underlying philosophy when he said: 'It is better to wear out than to rust out.' Society has begun to test this statement on a grand scale as many of those in work wear themselves out, working 60-hour weeks, while those without work kick their heels in frustration and despair at the first signs of rust.

Where not so long ago we might have blamed recession for job loss, technology now seems responsible for the greatest displacement of labour today. A combination of robotics and computer systems are replicating and improving upon much of that once done by the human hand and brain.

Is any job beyond the capabilities of technology? Certainly the keyboard strokes I am using to write these words seem destined to be overtaken by voice-recognition systems. It may not be too far into the future before law books are computerised and similar recognition systems are capable of digesting and assimilating the arguments in a court of law, weighing them against each other, using case history as a point of reference.

In the same way, machines will be able to diagnose ailments. Already computer-assisted animation has dispensed with the need for film extras in cinema as crowd scenes are produced artificially. There are also programmes to assist executives and managers. How long will it be before they replace them entirely. It may not be too long before the biggest part of the accounting and finance function can be performed with the aid of a few simple keystrokes.

Michael Dunkerley, a software specialist, explores many of these themes in a forthcoming book, The Jobless Economy? Computer Technology in the World of Work (Polity Press, to be published in June). He has witnessed the way that computers are replacing people in hundreds of factories and businesses, and believes the advance of technology is unstoppable.

Dunkerley worries that without people earning incomes, there can be no markets for the products factories produce. It is not a new observation. It was described by Alexander Heron in a book called No Sale, No Job, published during the 1950s, and it was recognised by Peter Drucker in his classic work, The Practice of Management.

Drucker noted that IBM, during the 1930s, had pursued new markets, partly because of its belief in maintaining work for its employees. The Rover Group had the same aim in mind when it committed itself more recently to providing long-term employment.

Dunkerley believes that technological change will make it increasingly difficult to maintain such commitments. He writes: 'People are now becoming the most expensive optional component of the productive process and technology is becoming the cheapest. People are now specifically targeted for replacement just as soon as the relevant technology is developed that can replace them.'

Even when displaced, people find other work, often at lower rates of pay. The exchange of well-paid manufacturing jobs for poorly paid service jobs is already a reality.

The result is that many people are no longer the consumers they used to be. The risk, says Dunkerley, is that the technological revolution will create what Keynes referred to as 'demand deficit' - while people want products, they are unable to earn wages to buy them.

What makes Dunkerley's book quite different from others I have read is that he is prepared to take these developments to their ultimate conclusion. He forecasts that fully automatic production lines, serviced robotically and independent of human input, will be with us in the next 50 years. What happens when most of the traditional work has gone, when a comparatively small proportion of the population that we may still describe as the workforce is needed to do work? If machines can produce the basics of food, power and other commodities, we may have to cope with the idea that these goods might be free in the future, says Dunkerley. 'Robots don't need wages. They are just there,' he says.

If people are taken out of the productive process, there is no way of valuing the product, he argues; it should be free. Anticipating hostility to this idea, he says: 'If people are criticising having things for free, they have got to explain how they can make people pay a price for something when people aren't working because that is the only way most people have of getting money.'

The role of money would diminish in a jobless economy, with some trade probably reverting to barter. Yet the absence of money could undermine the Protestant work ethic. Indeed, the introduction of money has often been a means of creating a work ethic. For example, when the British first colonised Kenya, they were dismayed to find that the locals were unwilling to work on their tea and coffee plantations. As a solution, the colonial government introduced a tax which forced people to seek work on the plantations to earn the money.

Dunkerley, like other recent commentators, compares the changes in working patterns today with those of 18th-century Britain, when agricultural employment collapsed and a harsh transition ensued as labour was absorbed to service the industrial revolution. Technological change, however, is absorbing labour on a much smaller scale.

He believes there is a bright future if society and governments recognise that we have secured for ourselves a world of plenty. Existing attitudes, morals and economic structures, he says, are geared to a world of shortages - hence, when confronted by surplus, the traditional reaction has been to destroy it and remove the means of production rather than give the produce away.

'Agricultural land is removed from production even though there are hungry people. Building workers are unemployed even though there are homeless people. There are waiting lists for hospital treatment even though there are doctors and nurses enough to deliver medical treatment,' he writes.

There is always a chance that technology may come up with some labour-absorbing industry akin to that inspired by the discovery of steam power. But if that does not happen, the changes for the West, in particular, will need to be radical. Keynes-inspired government spending will probably not be enough. The Protestant work ethic might have to be dispensed with as a spent philosophy.

But without work as we know it, how will we view our leisure ? As Jerome K. Jerome once wrote: 'It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do.'

© 1996 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved

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©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved