It wasn’t all that long ago that even Friedrich Engels spoke of how wealth could lift the economic burden from millions:
Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then for the first time man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones … It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.”
What can we say to all this now? In a generation we have gone from thinking that wealth would increase in dramatic terms and that jobs would be available for everybody. The first part has become the reality while the second lies in ruins. In the period of a decade we have gone from people feeling worn down and depressed from being unable to find work to experiencing the same emotions from the rigors of holding down two or more part-time jobs. In the period of a generation, work has gone from edifying the soul by giving it value to undermining it by forcing it into banality.
The historic decoupling of consumption and production hasn’t let to some kind of utopia but a kind of global disruption that has dislocated key sectors of modern society. This is even true in the emerging economies of the developing world, where the spread of wealth in those nations is causing an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor. In other words, greater parts of those populations will be working longer hours for less remuneration – a mirror image of the affluent world.
Where we once hoped for a better world, driven by equity and progress, we now faced the real chance of massive global unemployment and the spread of poverty. We are rapidly entering an age of cheap people and very expensive machines. As the world heads headlong, driven by a global financial juggernaut with few checks and balances, the link between labour and prosperity will be a part of our past, not the future.
Work, which has anchored our modern value system since the days of the Industrial Revolution, is dangerously close to becoming untethered to the ability to acquire wealth. The centuries-old theory that to be a responsible and productive human being is to work, to engage oneself in the production of goods necessary to the overall well-being of society, is under great stress. Where once people looked at their retirement years as a time of worth and pleasure derived from a lifetime of work, they now view it as a time of diminishing returns.
We have come full circle following a grand historic reversal. In ancient times, labour was often little more than basic existence for the majority, while for the elite there could be a life of leisure, learning, and public participation in things like citizenship and politics. But as the work of the oxen gave way to the wheel, which gave way to the steam and internal combustion engines, an entire middle class of workers was created which, paid well for their labour, paid well for the products they could acquire. The more that model worked, the more robust the economy became.
Not any more. Where 150 years ago 80% of Canadians worked on farms or ranches, today that number stands closer to 2%. What happened in the agricultural economy in the last century is now taking place in the industrial economy, leaving increased levels of unemployment or underemployment in the wake. And already we are beginning to spot a similar trend in the service sector, which has traditionally paid lower labour wages than its industrial counterpart. Even the information sector is giving way to mechanized efficiencies that is inevitably reducing its dependence on the human contribution.
What this all is leading up to is some remarkable social and economic dislocation in the populations of both the developed and developing world. We hear not a whit of this from the political class, but the main fallout from the lack of preparation for this incoming jobless tsunami will be in our communities and will have direct effect on our families and neighbours. As author John-Talmage Mathis put it: “When the noise is gone, and the air is still … prepare for survival.”