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The Price Of Progress Will Cost Us Our Jobs

What are we all going to do with ourselves?
PhotoAlto/James Hardy via Getty Images

There cannot be a more depressing job in the modern world than that of the person who watches you while you check out your own purchases at the grocery store. Yes, there are nurses and doctors who spend their days with the dying. I know there are social workers who confront the worst examples of our inhumanity towards each other.

These people, though, hold deep inside the satisfaction of knowing they are necessary and would have positive moments they see as their reason for carrying on.

The checkout lurker has no such satisfaction, their highlights reduced to swiping a card and unblocking a machine for frustrated customers or clearing away a basket so the next person can step up to the self-serve station. What's more, they spend their entire shift in contemplation of their own obsolescence, face to face with a future where their services are no longer required, their role taken over by a scanner and a half dozen pre-recorded, softly spoken messages.

Like the long-gone petrol station attendant, checkout attendants, file clerks and most bank tellers will soon be a thing of the past. Our shopping experience will transform as we fill our baskets and walk directly out of the store, sensors picking up and totalling the cost of our groceries, then withdrawing the necessary funds from our account. There will be no need to stop and make pesky small talk, no impediment to us getting on with our busy days.

This will be sold to us as progress. It will be lauded as innovation and efficiency. Some of the savings might even be passed on to consumers as a way of keeping prices down (down). It won't be long before self-stocking shelves are introduced, clearing the aisles of those pesky carts stacked with cardboard and bored employees. Soon whole grocery stores where we hunt and gather everything we need for our existence will be overseen by a couple of security guards and a few maintenance guys to keep the conveyor belts oiled.

Amazing, huh?

But what happens to all those people? You know, the ones who are working an honest job to support their families. The young people saving to buy their first car or to take a trip overseas. The ones who are happy to have a job after layoffs from other roles left them needing something, anything to pay the rent. These people do not simply retrain to care for the machines which replace them. Even if they had the capacity, they simply aren't needed to do so.

Grocery stores are by far the biggest employers in my region -- and most in Australia -- especially when it comes to low or semi-skilled workers. They are among the few businesses open long hours, seven days a week, allowing for the part-time opportunities and flexible work arrangements required by single parents and pensioners.

They are where young people get their first jobs, learning important lessons about punctuality, work ethic and structure which will be of benefit throughout their lives. Automating our local grocery stores will have a devastating effect on our communities, but nobody will stand in the way of it happening.

And it's not just grocery stores.

From clothing stores and fast food outlets to tattoo parlours and salons, it's easy to see that technology will soon reach a point -- if it hasn't already -- where people just aren't needed to facilitate a retail experience. Driverless trucks will deliver goods on our roads while drones will deliver everything from pizza to flowers.

And it's not just the jobs we can see.

Factories are already leading the way in automation, a trend which will of course continue. Professional services, such as accounting, medical, legal and even banking services are not exempt, with recent studies showing up to 60 percent of jobs people are currently at University studying to do will not even exist in 10 years' time.

Odious as the rise of the Donald Trump phenomenon has been, there is an aspect of his message which resonates deeply and has not been examined to sufficient depth by the media or his political opposition.

Many of his supporters are already part of the 'useless class,' a term coined by Historian Yuval Noah Harari to define those who the modern economy no longer has any use for. The once steady and valuable work they had at the base of the American manufacturing sector has disappeared into the hands of people overseas willing to work for lower wages and conditions. Collectively they are now so desperate they believe a blatant political lie that somehow these jobs can be brought back, rather than accepting the reality that even those who took over their roles in places like China, India and Bangladesh will soon be unemployed themselves as robotic technology makes even their low cost an economic liability for the corporate sector.

Our politicians are still trying to sell us on the notion that giving tax cuts to business will increase employment, where a simple glance at the facts confirms this isn't true. Corporations, especially our bigger firms, have plenty of money in the bank and the savings they are getting from paying lower taxes are going directly into profits. Great for shareholders, not so great for employees. And this is not a trend which changes in trajectory. Technology, by definition, allows for greater productivity with input from fewer people.

And what could be better for the bottom line?

Which begs the question, what are we all going to do with ourselves? It's nice to have the time to go for a walk, ride a bike or read a book, but for most of us it gets boring pretty quick. And how do we earn money to pay for the pizza that drone is delivering? What are the needs of a society where half of all people are unemployed, through no fault of their own, with no prospect of ever finding work and more people joining them every day?

And perhaps most important, from the perspective of social order, how do we keep the 'haves', those who still have a professional role to play, from separating as a class from the 'have nots'?

Ideally the businesses profiting from not having to pay labour costs will still appreciate they are responsible for supporting a market for the products they make and will pay taxes at a level which allows people to be paid a living wage. How much that wage will be, and how it is distributed, will no doubt be the subject of robust political debate in our future.

What seems certain is that this change will happen, and in many ways is already happening. In a best case scenario we will anticipate and plan for it, making a smooth transition to a new world where we all benefit from the leisure opportunities afforded to us by technological advances.

And a worst case scenario? Aw, c'mon, how much trouble can millions of bored, broke and hungry people get up to anyway?

If you want a glimpse at our future look at the faces of the checkout lurkers. They see it all too well.

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