Monday, 8 March 2010
Unemployment is around the 10% mark in both the US and France, a situation blamed on the world economic downturn. But what if this relatively high level of unemployment in two countries who are often considered as polar opposites when it comes to attitudes to work is nothing to do with the crisis that rocked the banks and the housing market and just a reflection of reality? Is it realistic to expect there to be 100% employment? What was the point in all the technological advances mankind has made since the Industrial Revolution if everyone still needs to labour away to earn a living? A machine that can work more efficiently than a human will, and should, put that person out of a job. To say that unemployment is a natural consequence of human progress is not to deny that it is a serious problem; both at a national level - the government is picking up the bill for those technological advances through social security payments - and also because of the demoralizing effects it has on those without a job. So what's the solution? To keep on paying someone to stick at their old job when a cheaper mechanical alternative exists is to pass on higher prices to consumers. It is also a somewhat Luddite position which devalues the technical achievements of those who made this advance possible. To create new jobs? Renewable energy and the whole green economy is currently being heralded as a possible means to cut unemployment. If this works then that's fantastic - a cleaner planet, a smaller social security bill and fewer miserable jobless people. But the Green Revolution will inevitably mean the destruction of jobs as well and even if the overall equation works out positive (there will be more solar panel installers than there were offshore oil men say) the underlying problem does not go away - the whole point of progress (or at any rate an inevitable side effect of it) is to make people redundant. At some point the job creation phase of the Green Revolution will turn into a phase of stagnation and then job destruction as we invent means to do all that good green work with fewer hands. The only solution I can see is to try and spread that 10% around a little more fairly. Rather than having 10% of the population unemployed have the whole population employed at 90%. And stop considering work as an end in itself. Le travail c'est la liberté was one of Nicolas Sarkozy's election slogans. Work is freedom. Even without the Auschwitz-meets-Orwell pedigree of this phrase it is palpable bullshit. Work exists so that we can gain the money we need to live and human ingenuity exists to enable us to gain that money by working less.