Writing about industrial capitalism over 150 years ago, Marx thought that the replacement of workers by machines would be a consequence of increased competition and the push to restore the rate of profit. This would lead to mass unemployment and increased poverty and misery amongst the proletariat.
Yet at least, until now, falls in the number of manufacturing jobs have been compensated by the growth of service sector work. In short, prices of consumer durables have fallen in relation to production workers incomes and new ‘needs’ have been cultivated.
But a huge amount of literature predicts a Jobless Future, because of revolutionary advances in technology, with even the Bank of England recently estimating that 40% of current jobs – including those considered to be ‘professional’ work, could be lost in the next few decades, due to the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.
But the introduction of labour-saving technology does not occur at a steady, gradual pace, or is not even. Instead, it’s claimed that automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in response to economic shocks. Yet since the 2008 financial crash, the UK economy has continued to expand – slowly but not dramatically – because of on an increased supply of cheap labour (large amounts from overseas), rather than by the increased ‘productivity’ of individual units of labour. Young people, including thousands of students ’learning and earning’ have also made up a significant part of this ‘reserve army’.
So will the economic downturn caused by the Covid shutdown, intensify wider structural employment changes? Firms trying to stay above water – particularly those more than proportionately affected by Covid – in hospitality and retail in particular – might well be tempted to automate, while the potential for using AI and robotics in the NHS is only just being addressed. Machines do not fall ill, they do not need to isolate to protect peers, they do not need to take time off work.
The pandemic has also speeded up existing trends in online retailing, with high street shops closing, but also supermarket chains, despite increasing profits, now able to shed front line store staff. Meanwhile, call-centre staff, have been directed to work at home, regulated by new surveillance software rather than patrolled by their human supervisors.
But pressures on firms to change business models will be held in check as a result of the ‘furlough’ – where any private sector firm can claim back the majority of wages of workers now considered ‘excess’ because of the pandemic. Due to end at the beginning of November, the ‘furlough’ has been extended for at least another five months and covering up to 5 million workers.
Governments should protect workers against loss of earnings, but It remains to be seen how many of those now stuck at home are effectively in what has been unfortunately referred to as ‘zombie jobs’ – employment, that under ‘normal ‘circumstances would have disappeared. New types of green jobs, backed by automation and a better distribution of work, is the way forward!