Eastercon: a post work future

(a tough call against SF Engineering and Infrastructure)

This panel started with a bit of the usual blue sky. Jobs have been changing since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, nobody cries for the blacksmiths. (Anymore. As I post this, they are crying for the last fishermen though.) “When jobs are destroyed other jobs are created, usually demanding higher level skills” – this has been the conventional wisdom forever. To me it’s always had the uncritical optimism of “When the gods close a door, they open a window.” Little comfort to people who don’t fit through windows. The critical questions, rarely asked, are what is the ratio of jobs created to jobs destroyed, what are the conditions, where are they located and what is their half life?

But once the conventional wisdom was tickboxed, this panel, unlike many I have sat through at business conferences and university alumni events, began to get real:

“I live in Brno now and work in the high tech industry there. It has become a service center for Europe. If you make a service call to Dixons it goes to Brno. My salary is one third of what it is in the UK. I make about a thousand pounds a month. But the living costs are one quarter what they would be here and my quality of life is better. There is less age discrimination. I am 50 this year and wouldn’t be able to get a high tech job in the UK. The question is whether IBM and Microsoft and the other companies will move the jobs somewhere else when it becomes economic for them. To Thailand or the Philippines maybe.”

“Not only self driving cars but self driving trucks are coming. It’s estimated more than 3 mln Americans are truck drivers, and probably more than 5 mln jobs support them, at truck stops and so on. In many states truck driver is the most common jobs. One company already has 50 self driving trucks (think not in US in South America). The abrupt unemployment of 8 mln people will be a shock.”

“All the white collar people who study automation think their jobs will be the last thing to be automated.”

“Language will still generate jobs. Google Translate doesn’t work well. It doesn’t even work for Finnish which I can tell you because I am the only non-Finn on my Worldcon committee.” (As a Finnish translator I can say: Translation memory programs do make things much faster though. Nobody in the factual translation business works entirely by hand anymore. But this means subcontracting rates have fallen precipitously, both in terms of number of translators needed to polish and check the job, and their wages. Crowdsourcing and gig sites also contribute to this.)

“Companies like Amazon still use humans to do the fine picking and packing. These are terrible jobs, however. People wear adult diapers because they don’t have time to go to the toilet – if you do that, your rate drops and you risk dismissal.”

“Caring is hard to automate not just because it needs fine motion and judgment but because people don’t want to be cared for by a robot. It is hard to pay for though. My parents owned a care home in the Isle of Man and employed only one nurse per shift and the rest carers without qualifications because they could not afford it. My mother is declining and we have talked about moving to Thailand. Care homes are an industry there, they do it very well, and they have German pensioners who are being cared for and are expanding to English speaking pensioners.”

“It’s not that there isn’t a need for people to do public jobs, it’s a question of how to pay for it because governments have become so much less ambitious about what they will provide.”

“There are more manufacturing jobs in the world than ever before, but they are not in the US and Europe.”

“Politicians and others are not thinking creatively about what we need to do about work and people’s incomes and inequality. They are not thinking out of the box.”

“They need to think about housing as well. House sharing. Like the dense housing in Shenzen. In Brno you can buy a city center flat for 20,000. But an iPad still costs the same and shops are full of shiny things that most people can’t afford but want very much.” (Cohousing! I’ve wanted cohousing for years. Old industrial squat or tinyhouse colony. Who’s in?)

“Gates and Musk are mentioning citizen salaries but company behavior is going the other way. The diapers. People in meatpacking, on assembly lines do the same thing because you just can’t stop and step off the line. Papa John’s Pizza lobbied heavily against the affordable care act, saying it would add $2.50 to the cost of a pizza. I’ll pay that! They didn’t ask me.”

“There’s no imagination, there’s no political will to rethink work in the radical ways we need to do it. It’s the opposite, a move to pure capitalism.” (Which I think of as: A refusal to leave anything on the table, to give a little, to be a mensch. Real estate speculation and warehousing also plays a role, driving all costs up.)

“There’s no political will on the workers’ side either. They won’t say this is not acceptable and go on strike. Millennials are too afraid for their jobs and don’t want to be troublemakers.”

“Schools need a rethink. The first nine years have not changed. They should have more IT.” (Danish guy)

“In Japan, pupils are no longer able to write Japanese. They write romaji and their phone translates it. They have passive reading ability and they speak as well as ever, but Japanese reading is going away.” (I see parallels in someof my English students actually.)

“I teach management in New Zealand and my students want checklists. How do I be a manager, what do I do. It’s the ability to be flexible. They don’t like that. They can’t measure it and game it.”

“Microsoft software is popular because the techies who maintain it are cheap. I worked for a company that supported nonprofits. A nonprofit can get a 95% discount on Microsoft software but still needs techies, and Microsoft techies are a dime a dozen. I was forbidden to talk about open source with our clients.”

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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