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Perils of a jobless future

Automation is taking away an increasing number of jobs

This op-ed by Parkland Institute director Trevor Harrison appeared in the Lethbridge Herald on March 12, 2019.

Self-checkouts. You’ve seen them. They’re everywhere now. Grocery stores and other retail outlets; airports and banks.

They sell convenience; no need to wait in line. And some customers express satisfaction with the greater sense of control they have over the process. But, beneath such expressions and the calm surface of technological acceptance, a storm is brewing.

For some customers the moment comes when they realize they’ve become unpaid workers for the corporation, whether bagging their own groceries or making out their own deposit slips. For others, the existential moment of truth comes when they realize the checkout machine replaced a human being – followed by the thought that perhaps similar machines are stalking them.

There has recently been a blowback among customers against self-checkouts. First, as mentioned, some customers have cottoned on to the fact that, in grocery stores at least, they are now doing the scanning and bagging that perhaps two others used to do, at an additional cost of their own time. In effect, the labour has been downloaded onto customers – a practice termed “shadow work.” Second, a lot of customers – count me among them – find the machine’s insistent demands said in a toneless voice annoying (“Please take your bag.”). Third, at least some customers express less satisfaction in their shopping experience, perhaps because of the loss of human contact,

But perhaps the biggest blowback has occurred within companies themselves. For, while self-checkouts have been marketed as increasing customer convenience, their use has been driven primarily by the quest for cost savings. For shareholders, the reality hasn’t lived up to the hype.

The cost savings anticipated by company CEOs and accountants have often not materialized. The machines are very expensive to buy and maintain. And when they malfunction or are confused (“Please wait for an attendant”), a human being has to step in. Moreover, self-checkout machines are prone to have higher rates of customer theft than occur at regular checkouts.

Given these assorted problems, some stores have found a novel way to replace their self-checkouts: they’ve gone back to hiring staff. The CBC and various other news outlets have reported that some Canadian Tire stores in Toronto have made the change, and that several large companies in the U.S., including Seattle’s PCC Community Markets and Albertsons LLC, will eliminate self-checkout lanes in some of their stores and go back to standard or express lanes. But perhaps the biggest story is Walmart which, following a brief and unsuccessful experience, cancelled its use of self-checkout machines.

These examples aside, it seems likely that machines will continue to eliminate certain jobs in coming years. Robots and computers are ideal for doing repetitive and often boring jobs. The impact is being seen already in other jobs beyond the supermarket, for example, in the advent of self-driving cars. This does not count the number of dangerous jobs eliminated in recent decades in areas such as mining and forestry.

There is much that could be celebrated in the use of these new technologies. But their use and the pace of their introduction cannot be left to companies and shareholders; neither can the financial benefits accrue only to the owners of the means of production. Unless the benefits of technological change are equally distributed, the result will be anger, alienation and social discord. The extreme politics alive today in much of the world is in part a response to the manner in which the new technologies have thus far been implemented.

The misuse of new technologies has finally another fatal flaw. The assembly line introduced in the early 20th century increased production at the eventual cost of thousands of jobs. In 1929, the resultant imbalance of supply and demand contributed to the Great Depression. Without jobs – good-paying jobs – aggregate demand tumbled.

The same risk faces us today. Unless dealt with, there may soon be plenty of supply on store shelves, but the computer voices staffing the machines will be talking only to themselves.

Trevor Harrison

Dr. Trevor Harrison is Director of Parkland Institute. He is a Professor of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Lethbridge, and Associate Director and Research Affiliate of the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy.

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