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National Opinion Centre

Social agencies throughout the country are encountering people who are recently without work or holding down one or two minimum wage jobs as they seek to make ends meet for their families. It’s an endlessly disillusioning process – one showing no sign of abating.  Yet, with yesterday being Labour Day, the subject received little mention.  Governments can be forgiven for having grown distracted by terrorism, climate change, the struggles of modern democracy and, yes, Donald Trump.

But this is the new world, the new economy, the new reality of employment. Millions are facing it and, despite training and education, they are witnessing that link between work and wealth disappear in real-time and with real fallout. We see what happens when democracy stumbles along through cycles of low voter turnout and the dysfunction that inevitably follows. Suddenly power migrates upward, with citizens cut off from it in ever-increasing ways. Well, it’s now playing out like that with employment. Wealthy owners and shareholders move farther off into the world of the elite and workers helplessly watch them disappear over the horizon in this endlessly globalized world. Unless dealt with, this de-linking will result in the ultimate separation between democracy and wealth.

As Sarah Kessler of Reuters reminded us this past summer, this is actually a discussion that’s been on the agenda for some 500 years.  Helpfully, she provided some examples.

  • Late-16th century – Queen Elizabeth I denied patent to the inventor of the newly automated sewing machine, fearing it would take away jobs.
  • 1860 – shovellers who handled grain in US ports refused to work with employers who used automated grain elevators.
  • 1930 – John Maynard Keynes coined the term “technological unemployment” to describe people losing jobs to mechanization. Ironically, he wondered about expanded leisure time, including 15-hour work-weeks.
  • 1950 – the Ford motor company replaced the original engine assembly line with an automated control that performed more than 500 operations, requiring fewer workers.
  • 1995 – Jeremy Rifkin authored the bestselling book The End of Work.
  • 2007 – with the newly arrived millennium, Newsweek magazine placed the future of work on its cover, with Time magazine doing the same two years later. Both articles held out the hope that, “remote work, teleconferencing, and collaboration software” would revolutionize work for the betterment of all.
  • 2013 – researchers at Oxford publish a study on “the future of employment” that predicts almost half of U.S. occupations were at high risk of being automated.

This topic has been generating heat and discussion for some time.  But it seems more acutely threatening now – a reality noted by author Andrew McAffee: “There’s the obvious evidence, and then the serious rigorous research about the hollowing out of the middle class, the polarization of the economy, the declines in entrepreneurship and mobility.  We weren’t as aware of those things three and a half years ago as we are today.”

So, what’s the plan?  We’ve heard that federal and provincial politicians and bureaucrats are studying the impacts of this rapidly evolving situation, but it remains unclear how all this is being addressed.  Two narratives are unfolding at the same time and, depending on which one you are part of, things can get confusing.  We are repeatedly told that our economy is, overall, healthy and that prospects are good.  On the other hand there are hundreds of thousands of stories emerging from the social agencies mentioned earlier that reveal just how many Canadians are trapped in unemployment or underemployment, between workers without jobs and jobs without workers.

“Wealth without work,” noted Gandhi is one of the world’s seven deadliest social sins.  It also constitutes a failure of politics and economics.  We’re in a bind and it’s becoming troublingly clear that the vital connection between work and meaning is imploding.  Having a job used to mean holding status in a community.  One provided for her or his family.  Skills were important and applying them with diligence was highly regarded.

Our political parties, and the great structure of bureaucracy around them, know all this to be true, but we keep being told that everything is proceeding as planned.  Fair enough, but we’ve been hearing that for 500 years.  The real question is how can they get all this new wealth and fragile employment into some kind of coherent policy.  Unless that transpires, Labour Day will become more of a historical event than a present cause for celebration.

Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario.  He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario.  He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 29 years.  He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“.   Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.
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