The pervasive myth of job termination

Posted on Jan 20, 2023, 9:36 AM

In our masochistic world where we pile on the most catastrophic theses at leisure, here is one that remains at the top of the hit parade: the fixed end of work, which has been announced by many intellectuals including the author of this book, Daniel Susskind.

Economist and researcher-teacher at Oxford and King’s College London, he is certainly not the smartest in this area. His belief: the ongoing technological revolutions and the automation that will inevitably eat into most human activities will force us to radically change our lifestyles to adapt to a jobless world.

when ? Daniel Susskind is careful not to say this because the most amazing prophecies revolve around this area. Let’s cite, for example, this report published within the framework of the World Economic Forum of Davos in 2016 which then announced 5 million jobs destroyed in the world by 2020 due to machines. A dark hope that fortunately did not come true.

The Machine Substitution Effect

Let us not rejoice, the author tells us. Although it would be wrong to think that entire sections of our productive activities will disappear like whole slabs detaching themselves from a wall under the influence of robots or artificial intelligence, the process continues and becomes more insidious form: the gradual entry of automation into all our activities, be it car manufacturing (a task that is now 80% done by robots) or medical diagnostics where doctors and machines are increasingly involved in the work.

Result, “with XXIe as the century progresses, the need for human labor is more likely to wither”, writes Susskind, especially as the impact of machine replacement progresses. “It is therefore quite possible that the working age is approaching in end and we must prepare for it now”, warns the author in spirit. In a way, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has closed a good part of the economies and those who work there are partially unemployed – 11 million in France at the peak of the crisis – is a form of dress rehearsal of what awaits us.

Wisely, the researcher is careful not to fall into the overstatements of less serious futurologists in this field. In particular, he refuted the Malthusian thesis of a finite amount of work, and admitted that technological progress increased prosperity. But in the long run, the productivity gains generated by these advances are not good news for work. In Britain, the manufacturing sector was producing 150 times more than in 1948, but with 60% fewer workers.

Above all, Daniel Susskind warns us against our own naivety, which leads us to believe that there are still many non-automatic tasks. “Let’s not underestimate the machines,” he warned. We don’t need to make a robot in the image of a human being to eliminate a job. »

The advent of a leisure society

Another interesting point raised by the author and which deserves reflection: the idea according to which adequate education and training is enough to overcome the problem and save jobs is in his eyes another illusion. It’s no longer enough to know how to read, write, count or even code to keep up with the rapid sophistication of machines. Many of them, just by their calculation capacities, for example, are now impossible for the human mind to reach. It is just as necessary, in his eyes, to adapt training to professions that are unlikely to be automated, such as nurses or social workers.

Whatever happens, there will be damage, predicts the author, taking up the now-accepted “polarization” thesis. The ones that come out here the best are the most and the least qualified, the least are those whose tasks will be automated later. Doctors and delivery people will therefore be relatively spared in the short and medium term when office workers begin to disappear, and with them an entire workforce formed by a middle class that is already paying the price for the digitalization of activities. formerly assigned to man .

The big question is clearly what happens to our societies once they are stripped of what has long been their central value, which has defined the lives of citizens. If we accept evolution as described by Daniel Susskind – which is highly questionable – the solution he proposes to fill our future lives without paid work is truly terrifying. He advocates nothing but the advent of an entertainment society organized and controlled by the State! “Just as in the working age the state intervenes to shape our professional life, so, in the working age, will it need comparable tools to shape our free time”, he wrote. It is not known if this is a wish on his part or a true prophecy. In both cases, we can only hope that he was wrong both in the diagnosis and in the treatment protocol.

A world without work

by Daniel Susskind. Flammarion Editions, 432 pages, 24 euros.

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