Being honest about opportunity

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A friend and colleague responded to my post about driverless cars and noted that the social change aspects would be large, considering the role of driving as a key employer of many people. I had noted that my original post was not saying whether cars were good or bad, delaying such discussion to later.

Now it is later. Let’s talk.

As we continue to automate certain industries, we are going to reduce opportunities for humans to undertake those tasks. The early stages of the industrial revolution developed to the production lines and, briefly in the history of our species, there was employment to be found for humans who were required to do the same thing, over and over, without necessarily having to be particularly skilled. This separation marked a change of the nature of work from that of the artisan, the crafter, the artist and that emerging aspect of the middle class: the professional.

While the late 20th and early 21st century versions of such work are relatively safe and, until recently, relatively stable employers, early factory work was harsh, dangerous, often unfair and, until regulation was added, unethical. If you haven’t read Upton Sinclair’s novel on the meat-packing industry, “The Jungle”, or read of the New York milk scandals, you may have a vision of work that is far tidier than the reality for many people over the years. People died, for centuries, because they were treated as organic machine parts, interchangeable and ultimately disposable. Why then did people do this work?

Because they had to. Because they lacked the education or opportunity to do anything else. Because they didn’t want to starve. Because they wanted to look after their families. This cycle plays out over and over again and reinforces the value of education. Education builds opportunity for this generation and every one that comes afterwards. Education breaks poverty traps and frees people.

No-one is saying that, in the post-work utopia, there will not be a place for people to perform a work-like task in factories because, for some reason, they choose to but the idea is that this is a choice and the number of choices that you have, right now, tend to broaden as you have more recognised skills and qualifications. Whether it is trade-based or professional, it’s all education and, while we have to work, your choices tend to get more numerous with literacy, numeracy and the other benefits of good education.

Automation and regulation made work safer over time but it also slowly reduced the requirement to use humans, as machines became more involved, became more programmable and became cheaper. Manual labour has been disappearing for decades. Everywhere you look, there are dire predictions of 40% of traditional jobs being obsolete in as short as ten years.

The driverless car will, in short order, reduce the need for a human trucking industry from a driver in every truck to a set of coordinators and, until we replace them in turn, loading/unloading staff. While driving may continue for some time, insurance costs alone are going to restrict its domain and increase the level of training required to do it. I can see a time when people who want to drive have to go through almost as much training as pilots and for the same reason: their disproportionate impact on public safety.

What will those people do who left school, trained as drivers, and then spent the rest of their lives driving from point A to point B? Driving is a good job and can be one that people can pursue out to traditional retirement age, unlike many manual professions where age works against you more quickly. Sadly, despite this, a driverless car will, if we let it on the roads, be safer for everyone as I’ve already argued and we now have a tension between providing jobs for a group of people or providing safety for them and every other driver on the road.

The way to give people options is education but, right now, a lot of people choose to leave the education system because they see no reason to participate, they aren’t ready for it, they have a terrible school to go to, they don’t think it’s relevant or so many other reasons that they made a totally legitimate choice to go and do something else with their lives.

But, for a lot of people, that “something else” is going to disappear as surely as blacksmiths slowly diminished in number. You can still be a blacksmith but it’s not the same trade that it was and, in many places, it’s not an option at all anymore. The future of human work is, day by day, less manual and more intellectual. While this is heavily focussed on affluent nations, the same transition is going on globally, even if at different speeds.

We can’t just say “education is the answer” unless we accept how badly education has failed entire countries of people and, within countries, enter communities, racial sub-groups or people who don’t have money. Education has to be made an answer that can reach billions and be good while it does it. When we take away opportunities, even for good reasons, we have to accept that people just don’t go away. They still want to live, to thrive, to look after their families, to grow, and to benefit from living in the time and place that they do. The driverless car is just a more obvious indicator of the overall trend. That trend won’t stop and, thus, we’re going to have to deal with it.

A good educational system is essential for dealing with providing options to the billions of people who will need to change direction in the future but we’re not being honest until we accept that we need to talk about opportunity in terms of equity. We need to focus on bringing everyone up to equal levels of opportunity. Education is one part of that but we’re going to need society, politicians, industry and educators working together if we’re going to avoid a giant, angry, hopeless unemployed group of people in the near future.

Education is essential to support opportunity but we have to have enough opportunities to provide education. Education has to be attractive, relevant, appropriate and what everyone needs to make the most of their lives. The future of our civilisation depends upon it.

 



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