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  • Eugene McGarrell

How will we cope when automation takes over our jobs and we lose self agency and currency?



I’m sure most of us in the social service sector would be delighted to see the NSW Government’s “ground breaking” report that predicts “seven per cent of people who are aged under 25 will account for half of the estimated $100 billion cost of the state's social services by the time they are 40 years old”. Of course, the message itself is not a good one, but isn’t it heartening to see governments using data to predict future need?


Not unsurprisingly the report identifies groups of people vulnerable to requiring welfare in the future and recommends early intervention investment program as a strategy. This all makes perfect sense.


But is it enough?


And is it the role of government alone to find the solution?


Maybe it’s time for each of us to think about our role in the root cause of poverty, mental illness, addiction, homelessness, child neglect and domestic violence. These outcomes for people, families and communities may appear not to be connected, but they are all very much a by product of our society.


I have written in previous blogs about the link between fragmented community and poor health and social outcomes. Solving the problem with expensive government programs will go some way to reducing the impact but let’s face it, if we don’t act as a community we are just papering over the cracks in our social foundation. Government will do their best within the resources available to them. Unless we want to pay more taxes (recent events seem to suggest we want the exact opposite) then we need a new way.


Recently I was introduced to the Tragedy of the Commons and the children’s story “Stone Soup”. The Tragedy of the Commons teaches us the lesson that if we take without thought of sustainability then we will all go hungry and the Stone Soup story tells us how we can create more by contributing our resources.


The resurgence of neoliberal economics across many countries including Australia in the 1980s was typified by Margaret Thatcher’s words in 1987:


“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”


This policy seems to assume we are all born into this world with the same level of privilege, that we are all given the same opportunities and it’s the lack of work ethic that keeps people in poverty.


We are more enlightened now though, aren’t we?


We do know poverty isn’t a personal character fault, don’t we?


We understand that wealth is a lottery of birth, don’t we?


If we are more enlightened, then why does our social policy and legislation continue to sustain poor outcomes for people in low socio-economic communities? The headline in The Guardian this week “All children in detention in the Northern Territory are Indigenous” is a headline that should shame every Australian.


But are we even talking about it?


The “Tragedy of the Commons” is the future for the world if we carry on with the same paradigm. The environment is struggling to sustain us, the economy is failing and the cracks in our society are widening. In less than 10 years automation will take over most of the office jobs in the CBDs of Australia (and the rest of the world). Automation has already hit the blue-collar worker, but most white-collar workers thought it would never happen to us. Artificial Intelligence won’t create replacement jobs like previous technologies have, the economy will be driven by robots.


And the rich living off the robots won’t have to pay us to make them rich anymore. According to Yuval Noah Harari in his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” a new class will be created. This new class will be economically irrelevant and therefore will lose any voice or leverage in society. The working class were able to withdraw their labour to leverage conditions and pay, the new irrelevant class will not have agency.


So, while we continue to collect our flat whites and lattes on the way to the air conditioned (or heated) office every weekday we remain comfortable and we don’t feel a sense of urgency to reconnect our society. Our heads in our phones, cursory nods to our neighbours when we are putting the bins out and an exchange of ideas on Facebook won’t repair the damage done by the neoliberal dream of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan et al (and predecessors).


This is the point where I am supposed to be presenting the solution. But of course, I don’t have a simple solution that will create a shift in community resilience. I am heartened by recent authors notably Hugh Mackay, Rutger Bregman and Johann Hari which point to human connection and community cohesion as a way forward.


But how do we make this a reality? Our systems are perfectly designed to create the results in vulnerable communities. If we want different results, we need new systems. And these new systems need to be created by community and not left to bureaucrats alone.


The future burden on the welfare system will continue to grow. The people who hang on to their jobs will need to pay more taxes for the privilege of having a job while the rest of us will become irrelevant. It's time we started the conversation to build a new system for our kids and grandkids to enjoy. The tragedy of the commons will lead to a sick global environment and economy. I don't want that for my kids.


Let's start the conversation. Let's act!