In a seemingly innocent comic that recently appeared in the New York Times, a young boy asks his father how many people it would take to run a modern textile factory.
“All you need is one man and a dog,” replied the father. “The man to make sure that all the machines are working properly, and the dog to keep the man from getting too close to the machines!”
The apparently paradoxical answer is instead a statement of the great problem that is facing humanity today, and ever more in the future.
Automated production lines have grown in recent years, with new robots that are able to perform multiple tasks and move so quickly that they must be locked in plastic cages to prevent them from injuring any unfortunate operators that might stray into their path. These robots are able to operate for 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, reaching levels of productivity that no mortal human being could ever hope to achieve.
This progressive automation has spread to all types of manufacturing, from automobiles to electrical appliances, from the riveting of airplane fuselages to the stocking of warehouses.
At the same time, and in increasing quantities, millions of jobs are being eliminated by the technological revolution that has been transforming how we live and work for decades.
Millions of secretaries have lost their jobs, and the open spaces of large corporations where thousands of designers worked with drafting machines are all but gone. Legal practices no longer require the diligent efforts of those who spent entire days analyzing the verdicts of old cases. Administrative functions in both small professional studios and large corporations are now performed automatically by preconfigured software. The list goes on, including the purchase of train or airline tickets and even insurance and banking services.
If everyone stopped to consider their own experiences for a moment, they would realize that their visits to a banking counter or a travel agency desk are getting rarer every year, and as they do, so do the workers manning the posts. In most cases it does not happen by large closings, but through a steady trickle that does not raise the alarm, even though the end result, visible in Italy over the past several years, is the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
One could object by saying that all technological revolutions have had a similar effect, but that would not be true. The advent of the automobile certainly hurt the carriage-building and horse-raising businesses, but it also created a far greater number of jobs: manufacturing, repair, the building of roads and the sectors tied to the production of energy to power them. The same thing happened with the introduction of the railroad, electricity, and the telephone.
The technological revolution certainly gave birth to many new companies, making both hardware and software, but the number of new workers and laborers involved in the industry does not reach one-tenth of the jobs lost to it.
The problem of employment is getting more serious by the day and it certainly cannot be alleviated by slowing the process of technological development. Doing so would mean losing even more jobs.
If producing so many goods and services now requires so few people, the easiest solution would be for everyone to work less, so that everyone can work. Easy to say, and impossible to do. The real world behaves in the exact opposite way: people work more to produce more to gain a bigger share of the market. There is no international authority able to distribute the scant available jobs across all the countries of the world. It is certainly contradictory, but in today’s world, only the labor markets of fast growing nations are spared.
While waiting for the world to wake up and see the mess it has put itself in, a country like Italy needs to not only enact well-known reforms (and a rapid diffusion of automation and digitalization processes), but also to multiply, in the literal sense, its efforts in technical education and research and development. In this era of humanity’s mad growth, one must always be on the cutting edge if he is to survive.
On the other hand there are needs that cannot be met with automation, such as personalized services like craftsmen, tourism, or personal assistance. Given that this clearly requires public resources that are not easy to come by, it is hard to understand why absolute priority has not been given to the development of a technical training and apprenticeship program that can compete for the challenges of the 21st century. Many others would follow the first example. Instead, the issue of labor in Italy is still being confronted as if it were a problem of hourly wages and job mobility, and refusing to admit that our costs are actually lower than our major European competitors (even when taking into account every possible tax burden imaginable) and that mobility is pushed so far that, primarily via temporary contract employment, it becomes the dominant rule in the Italian economy today. With no expectations of changing the world, let us mobilize all of our efforts towards building the jobs of tomorrow, and not limit ourselves to raising this issue only when a large corporation enters an unrecoverable downward spiral.