It’s All About Jobs, Stupid!

Excuse the plagiarism of James Carville, a Clinton strategist, “it’s about the economy, stupid”. Leaders and politicians the world over chant the mantra about creating “good” jobs within their constituencies. We, as the populace, seem to agree and vote accordingly. While job creation is promoted, productivity improvement is celebrated even more.

My professional life was in the information technology world. Every project did reduce the role of human resources in any given process. The rationalization had been: “people are freed up to do more worthwhile things” and “people are freed from the drudgery of repetitive tasks and can pursue more stimulating activities”. A Luddite approach is also false in that a cessation of technological advancement will be even more disruptive. What is true is the rate of change in technological exploitation cannot be accommodated in current societies. The printing press in the 15th century, replaced scribes, but it took centuries to deploy, allowing scribes to be easily absorbed into other activities. Today’s rate of deployment of technology is mind-boggling by comparison.

On a trip to China in 2000, we were travelling to the airport along an interstate grade highway. There was a lone individual with a broom, sweeping the highway! My initial reaction was how backward this country must be. On contemplating the issue on sleepless nights, there was a different conclusion. China had it right! With almost a billion and a half people, there are just not enough things to do.

Some may remember the UI Ski Team of the mid-1970’s. People were riled by some skiers who were collecting Unemployment Insurance and spending time on the slopes. The point I made at the time to a colleague was that I’d be happy to pay some portion of my earnings to keep fewer people competing for my job. Albeit tongue in cheek, that remains true today. There are just not enough “good” jobs to go around, whatever “good” is. I enjoyed working and saw it as a privilege. In addition to the intellectual stimulation, there were all forms of social interaction from which I derived great pleasure. Being replaced by a UI Ski Team member would have been devastating.

Members of the economic council advising Canada’s Finance Minister, projected the disappearance of 40% of current jobs in the next decade. Thus, the competition for “jobs” will be even more fierce. Our Prime Minister continues to promote the idea of the creation of more middle class jobs despite the economic council’s warning. That is what we want to hear, true or not. The creation of an infrastructure bank will create jobs and economic activity, but how long will this last? We would be building new bridges, and highways, while trying to wean people off personal vehicle use. Public transportation is much more efficient, but a large segment of society rails against the loss of personal choices and freedom. Should job creation have a social conscience?

Ignoring the current unemployed for now, what advice can be given to students trying to determine their life’s path? There is a strong orientation towards Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics related careers. The budget just tabled in Canada leads with a chapter on Skills and Innovation. The problem is innovation displaces skills with increasing regularity. Self-driving cars are very innovative, but the millions of bus, taxi, and truck drivers may see it very differently. There is however a counter-balance promoting lifelong learning, suggesting a recognition by the current government that we will be in continuous flux. I’d support Fareed Zakaria’s promotion of liberal arts as a key component. If done right, we would learn how to learn, and thus exploit the lifelong learning path promoted by the Federal Government’s budget.

We do require a major change in perceptions. With the transition from a manufacturing base to a service-based economy, we need torespect ALL jobs. We should not look down on garbage collectors, employees in McJobs, taxi-drivers, and a host of others that make our lives possible. The economic drivers will change from time to time, and our respectful interaction with service providers will make our lives more enjoyable. Commonly used phrases only serve to create an in-bred disrespect for people that provide essential services.

To anyone in government “I pay your salary…”.

To our kids, “study and work hard or else you’ll be {enter menial profession here…}”

To servers, “{fill in anything based on your experiences on a flight, hotel or in a restaurant…}”

We will not derive any long-term satisfaction from demeaning anyone providing services.

The final point would be to recognize that as we pursue innovation and productivity, masses of people will be displaced. We must accept the need for financial support for these people. Being stuck in a puritanical based model it is difficult to accept “people on the dole”. Reality dictates we need to get over it!

Ken Barrie lives in Calgary, Alberta. The founder of a small IT company, with an Education in Engineering, Ken has a keen interest in Social Justice issues.