George Walford: Backs to Work

An article in the TIMES (22 Mar 89) discusses employment prospects and concludes that there is no need to worry about any shortage of labour in the near future. The bulge is to be followed by a demographic trough, but the number of young people coming out of the schools to 1995 will still be enough to fill the jobs available Industry now needs less labour to produce the same amount of goods; between 1961 and 1981 2.5 million jobs disappeared in this way.

The workers discarded were taken up by the service sector, but as automation and computer technology develop the demand for human labour is diminishing here, too. Check-out counters, banks, libraries, insurance offices, doctors, stockbrokers and professional kitchens are all coming to use clever machines in place of people. Amin Rajan forecasts ‘jobless growth’ and Charles Handy, author of The Future of Work, is quoted as saying that although increases in industrial productivity may create more wealth, this will mean more jobs only if output increases faster still. And output does not increase (or increases in output are not maintained) unless consumption increases.

We used to work in order to eat; now we must eat in order to work. We must eat more, drink more, travel more, wear more clothes, use more fuel, cut down more trees, burn more coal, produce more radioactive waste, dump more rubbish and pollute more air. We must destroy the planet faster, faster and faster still Why? So we can go on working.

If everybody was consumed with a furious passion for work this might make some sort of sense, but the whole of history goes to show that although some people do enjoy work, great numbers do not. Many of the people now without work are suffering, but not from lack of useful occupation; we get closer to reality if we call them not the unemployed but the undersupplied. Until recently pretty well everybody had to work, like it or not. Now those who like work are easily able to maintain those who prefer to be without it. Only accept this and we can all relax, give the planet a chance to recover and begin to enjoy ourselves.

from Ideological Commentary 41, September 1989.