Will change bring a “soft landing” to workers displaced by new technology?

By Tony Kirby, July 17, 2016

Tony Kirby is a retired business communications professional and a basic income advocate. He lives in Vancouver.

A popular myth is that things happen very quickly, that change is fast.

Well, it isn’t and I should know—I’ve been watching proposed initiatives and new products for six decades now—and I know that change is painfully slow. 

The reasons are both emotional and financial.

As the first writer in North America to specialize in writing about automation I had an inside track on the impact of early computers. Although it didn’t take too many years before factories were fully automated, the introduction of computers to the office environment was slow.

At the time, the 1960s, I knew there was a great deal of tedious office work that could be handled far more by machines, so why was office management dragging its feet?

Then it came to me. It was an emotional thing. There’s nothing emotional about installing a new machine to debark logs, for example, but there’s lots of emotion about putting two young accounts people out of work.

Annual growth in computing power was simply not being reflected in the office by new computer applications. It wasn’t until about 20 years later that the social upheaval in offices finally subsided and computers were fully utilized as efficient management tools.

Financial factors also lead to new technology being delayed or suppressed. For example, cheap labour reduces the need to innovate. We also hear, virtually every month, about exciting new products and medical breakthroughs but their actual introduction is either very slow or fails to reach the market.

A good example from the 1960s—both financial and emotional—was the introduction of the Clairtone Project C stereo. This was an incredible sound system, praised by celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Oscar Peterson, but its modern, award-winning design “didn’t fit in” with the living room furniture of that time. It was also too highly-priced, the equivalent of $20,000 today.

A good example from today is the self-driving car. As a recent article in The Globe and Mail pointed out, anything that makes cars safer is bad for the auto-insurance industry; also self-driving cars would “massively cut down on the number of automobiles needed” (“The self-driving road to lower returns”, The Globe and Mail, May 4, 2016).

Other examples are not hard to find. 3D printing may have a massive affect on the manufacturing of small and medium-sized products. But has it to date?

Thus the leakage of jobs due to new technology has been slow, hardly noticeable by people working full-time and coping with their own problems. In fact up until around the year 2000 it wasn’t a real problem: jobs lost to new technology were being replaced by jobs created by new technology, particularly in the communications sector.

But today new technology is not leading to the creation of more jobs, at least not at anywhere near the pace that is needed. Politicians who talk about creating new jobs are not only outdated but irresponsible.

And it’s a highly vulnerable group in society that is suffering—middle-aged blue and white collar workers. While our society gives protection to the young and the old, the middle-aged employee loses out...at best, a few weeks of unemployment insurance and then they’re on their own, usually coping with a growing family and a mortgage.

The pressure on governments to provide a “soft landing” for these displaced workers has led, in part, to the revival of an old idea—the need to provide a “basic income” for all citizens. This movement, which comes under various names (minimum income, guaranteed income etc.), is now making rapid progress around the world. Finland and the Netherlands, for example, have been in the news lately with their plans to initiate pilot programs.

Canada holds a unique position in the movement, having conducted one of the world’s first major basic income pilots. This was held in Manitoba in the 1970s, including the “saturation site” of the Town of Dauphin, and ran for three years. Now, the Ontario government is working towards the launch of a basic income pilot project starting in 2017.

The major impetus behind the movement has always been the need to combat poverty, with champions coming from across the political spectrum (Richard Nixon, Milton Friedman and Martin Luther King Jr. are historic examples of proponents of the idea). The right is particularly interested in cutting social spending, reducing government administration, and putting more responsibility back into the hands of individuals. The left is more interested in preventing and reducing poverty, strengthening the social compact, and seeing people have more opportunity and “freedom from work so that we may have freedom to work.”

The dilemma for people in the movement is that nobody wants to see their friends or associates lose their jobs to technology, but the more that do lose out, the stronger the argument for a “soft landing” (a basic income).

How fast will change come on this major initiative?