LONDON – “The notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common ‘platform’ is, to our minds, faintly ridiculous,” said one of the judges on the employment tribunal. So the tribunal ruled that Uber’s 30,000 drivers in London were actually employees, and therefore entitled to be paid the minimum wage, to be given sick pay, even to have paid holidays.
Uber appealed the ruling, because it would wreck its business model in Britain and, if the example spreads, worldwide. But it was only a temporary victory for workers’ rights, because just as the real jobs have been replaced by fake “freelance” jobs like Uber that strip people of their old legal protections, so the “freelance” driving gigs will soon be replaced by — no jobs at all.
The first self-driving cars are already on the roads. Automation, in the form of artificial intelligence, will probably abolish almost all the driving jobs in the next 20 years. In Britain alone, that means 400,000 jobs driving big trucks and almost 300,000 licensed taxi drivers.
Three-quarters of a million jobs gone, say, and nothing plausible coming down the road to replace them. Scale it up to the size of the United States, and that’s around 4 million more American jobs gone, not to foreign competition and “outsourcing” but just to technological change. It’s harder to replace drivers than bank tellers — “every ATM is the ghost of three bank tellers” — but it just takes a little longer to develop the right software.
There is a message here for all the angry people who voted for Brexit in Britain, who will vote for Donald Trump this week in the U.S., who will vote for Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France next April. They are angry because the secure jobs and decent living standards they enjoyed in the latter half of the 20th century are gone. Something must be done about it, but the jobs are not coming back.
The newly insecure millions blame “globalization” and the export of manufacturing jobs to lower-wage economies overseas for their plight, and in the early days that was indeed what killed most of the jobs. This is why they cheer for Trump when he promises 40 percent tariffs on imported goods and the end of free trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement. They hope that he’ll bring the jobs home.
If he wins, he will destroy the Mexican economy, cause immense collateral damage to the Canadian economy and trigger a full-scale trade war with China, but there is still no hope that those lost jobs will ever come home again. There might be more manufacturing in the U.S., but automation would still ensure that most of the old jobs were eliminated. As they will one day be eliminated in their new homes overseas too.
This is a global economic transformation comparable to the industrial revolution, when entire populations went from overwhelmingly rural to overwhelmingly urban in only two generations. This time the transformation is from a full-employment economy to an economy of abundance that only requires a fraction of the population to work.
A 2013 study by Oxford University economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne concluded that 47 percent of American jobs are likely to be destroyed by automation in the next 20 years. That’s change so big and so fast that people can’t believe it’s happening, and so they prefer to focus on something like outsourcing that might be fixed by politics.
The industrial revolution was an angry, turbulent time, with urban uprisings and class warfare. We’ll be lucky if the damage this time is limited to demagogues like Trump, who pander to the fear and anger of the newly displaced — and not just the displaced of the old working class, but the growing numbers of middle-class people who are also being displaced by machines.
They are not “right-wing” in the traditional sense, although many have become more socially conservative and some openly racist as their panic rises. “Populist” is a much better word: they hate the changes and the “elites” who seem untouched by them, and they want their old jobs and their self-respect back. But the old jobs are not coming back, and even populist politics cannot resurrect them.
Besides, most of them actually hated their jobs, from which they were only free for two weeks (the U.S. and Japan) or at most five weeks (Europe) a year. The real task will be to find ways of providing a majority of our fellow citizens with money and self-respect without those jobs. Some form of Guaranteed Minimum Income is probably the answer, but we have barely got round to asking the right question yet.
This is not a disaster; it’s a process. Last time it took over a century of mass misery and occasional mass bloodshed to get through it, but at the end most people were living much longer, healthier, more interesting lives than their peasant ancestors. We should try to do it a lot better and quicker this time.
Gwynne Dyer is a military historian and independent journalist based in London. His columns are published in 45 countries.