Work and Employment in Post-Manufacturing Society – part six by Michael Shanks

The first question, then, which arises is the likely impact on employment of the new technologies. The leading technology of the 1980s is likely to continue to be, as it undoubtedly is today, information technology based on the computer and the silicon chip. As with all new technological innovations, it is easier at first glance to see what jobs will be lost through its application than what jobs will be gained. Thus on the one hand, computer-based automation on the shop floor (primarily through the substituion of robots for humans) is plainly going increasingly to replace men and woman by machines in the actual manufacture of goods. The production lines of the future, at least in Western society, will be manned by robots and not by people. Similarly, in the offices of the future the recording and trasmitting of information, hitherto performed by an army of clerks and typists, will in future be increasingly electronically handled and processed. Office automation will also have major impact on the operations and staffing of banks and insurance companies.

On the other hand, as with earlier innovations, the long term effect could well be to create more jobs than are lost. Analysis of the impact of past innovations on jobs suggests, unexcitingly, that it is impossible to establish any general correlation between innovation and the total number of jobs. Some innovations have on balance destroyed jobs; others have on balance created jobs; in others teh effect is indeterminable. It is never easy to isolate the impact of the innovation from other events (e.g. the movement of the business cycle). But perhaps the most significant effect of innovation is to remove bottlenecks to growth (bottlenecks which perhaps had not previously been identified as such). To quote one example, it has been calculated that had automatic telephone dialling not been invented, the entire working population of the UK would now have to be employed as telephone operators. The example is a neat one. Automatic dialling is an innovation which does not, on the face of it, create a new industry. In this respect it is not like the invention, say, of plastics or of bio-technology (which we will be discussing below). It is a straightforward subsitution of capital for labour. Yet its major long term effect has not been to destroy jobs but to enable the market it serves, and indirectly the economy as a whole, to expand much faster and further than would otherwise have been possible.

Undoubtedly similar effects will come form other aspets of the computer revolution: for example, the transmission of information via viewdata and the development of intelligent terminals linked to a main-frame computer in the office and the home. The nature and location of jobs will change, and the skills rquired. We will address these matters later. The point I wish to make at this stage is that there is no way, so far as I am aware, of determinng whether the total number of jobs available (leaving aside other factors) will increase or diminish as a result of the computer and the related impact of information technology (or telematics, informatics or whatever other name is used). In default of any firm evidence, one can only rely on intuition. My intuition tells me that, while the short term effect may well be negative, the longer term overall effect will be positive.

But of course the computer and its offshoots are not the only manifestation of technological innovation in the post-manufacturing society. Indeed, by the end of the decade they may no longer appear the most dramatic or important in their impact. By then the leading new technology could very well be bio-technology or the synthesising of life, including genetic engineering. The implications of biotechnology for society are perhaps even more radical, and certainly potentially more dangerous, than those of the micro-processor. It is not our intention to explore these here; but rather to make the point that, from the point of view of jobs, the implications of bio-technology are likely to be more obviously benign than those of the computer revolution. For bio-technology will essentially create new industries rather than alter the inputs to existing ones.

The same is true of the other leading areas of new technology in the 1980s, so far as they can be identified today. These include the development of new sources of energy – without which economic activity is likely to encounter major bottlenecks inhibiting further growth in the 1990s; the rapidly improving understanding of the Earth through plate tectonics, the sue of satellites and other means; and the development of materials science through molecular electronics and the like. In all these cases the impact on overall employment should be unambiguously beneficial.

The other point which has to be made at this stage is that forecasting the application of new inventions is a hazardous exercise. The most significant impact of an invention is usually one which has not been forseen by its inventors, its advocates or its critics. A note of humility is therefore appropriate at this stage of the argument.

Taking account of all these uncertainties, I conclude that the best judgement one can make at this point in time is that the overall impact of new technology on total employment in the post-manufacturing society will be at worst neutral, more probably bening.

I now turn to the effect of social factors. Will the social pressures discussed above continue to operate in the post-manufacturing society, and if so what will be their impact on overall levels of employment?

First, to repeat, there is very little evidence from opinion surveys that the distrust of business and government, the desire for more environmental protection and protection of the consumer which characterised the 1970s are likely to diminish in the 1980s. Insofar as these pressures impact on overall employment, their effect is more negative than positive, in that they tend to deter new investment. However, their impact varies from industry to industry.

For example, social resistance is liable to slow down – for good or ill – the introduction of bio-technologies and the spread of nuclear energy. On the other hand, computer technology is likely to make industry less environmentally vulnerable. Computers do not pollute. Information technology is essentially a “clean” industry. It can operate in attractive surroundings, and can offer its employees and the communities within which it operates a pleasant and stimulating environment. An industrial revolution based on knowledge rather than on coal and steel is clearly one which imposes fewer external costs on society.

It has another, even greater advantage. At the very beginning of this pamphlet I referred to the alienating effects which the technology of the first industrial revolution imposed on its participants because of its requirement for very large scale operations to achieve maximum efficiency. The technology of the first industrial revolution emphatically was on the side of the big battalions. As we have seen, society and public opinion increasingly are not.

This dichotomy (contrast between two things) can to a large extend be resolved in the knowledge-based second industrial revolution. Computer technology facilitates small scale decentralised operations. At the extreme the computer can turn the home into an information centre, so that if we want to we can revert in large sections of our economy to the kind of pre-industrial working pattern described at the very beginning of this pamphlet. In other words, by using the link between the telophone and the TV screen, by installing viewdata systems and word processors in the home, with intellignet terminals, we can return if we so wish to the pattern of cottage industry, with virtually all the operations of the office decentralised to the home, the workers communicating with each other by telephone and closed-circuit television. They can, of course, work on a flexitime basis. The need for large concentrations of office workers disappears. Commuting to work can become an option rather than a necessity, and operatives can to a very large extent choose their place of work.

At the factory itself the function of humans will increasingly be the control the operations of robots, so that the numbers who need to work there will be greatly reduced and the conditions in which they work can be greatly improved.


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