● Automation is making manual and clerical jobs redundant
● Human beings are uniquely good at creative and caring roles, and we should focus on developing skills and opportunities here
● There is a special role for young people in helping society adapt to the new world we are entering
Previous posts have argued that to be safe, free and happy, individuals need membership of a strong nation and a strong community. My final three posts focus on the family. This is the association most dear to most of us, the first and last loyalty where we learn and practice the habits of trust that make communities and nations possible. ‘The sources of the commonwealth are in the households’, said Edmund Burke.
Yet the family is generally overlooked in policy and politics. This is due to a combination of hostility (from the Left, who regard traditional families as oppressive), reverence (from the conservative Right, who consider families too sacred to be touched by the state) or indifference (from the liberal Right, who see families as non-economic agents and therefore irrelevant). Yet family, and its begetter, love and sex, is what we think about and care about most. With community and nation, it is a true object of politics and policy.
The most significant immediate influence on the wellbeing of families is the work available to adults. And the world of work is changing utterly. We can expect many forms of paid work to be made redundant by automation, further imperilling the ‘precariat’ class of over-qualified, underpaid, insecure workers. The people and places left behind are at risk of further regress, further demoralisation. The impact on families and children will be devastating.
Yet there is a brighter prospect, if we get things right: a labour market that creates the conditions for virtue. As I explained in the introductory post (Proposition 1) the virtues are the ‘excellences of the species’, the things that human beings are uniquely good at. They are the qualities and practices that make us useful and fulfilled. And the virtues are most fully expressed in the two vocations in most urgent demand in the new world of work: the vocations of care and creativity.
It is, perhaps sadly, not true to say that machines – automation, robotics, Artificial Intelligence and so on – are simply good at the routine business of life, the functions of sorting and harvesting, while we’ll always need humans for the ‘higher’ functions of design and innovation. The machines can design airports, compose symphonies, invent treatments too. And yet the world needs people for their creativity, if only to give one another the sense that we inhabit a world made by ourselves, not designed for us by an algorithm.
This need is reflected in a cultural shift that is underway. For all the thrilling futurity around us, people are seeking connection with the old and the organic. In the shadow of globalism, between the City of London and Canary Wharf, indeed right in the tech district dubbed with British self-deprecation ‘Silicon Roundabout’, is Shoreditch, home to hipsters in beards and dungarees. The culture is into slow food, bicycles, folk music; we are modernising to a conservative soundtrack, and this is good.
The creative virtues are not supplemented but necessitated by the age of tech. We need experiments in good living, and to do this we need artisans and entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators and artists.
There is a special role for young people here. In every previous civilisation, adolescence was the time of learning the ropes, of being inducted into the knowledge and skills of the adult society you are joining, which was little different from the society of a generation before. Adolescence was also usually a short period, for people grew up quickly in the old days. Today, however, young people experience an attenuated adolescence lasting into their 20s and even beyond – a long period of discovery in which they, not we, are the teachers. They will induct us, not the other way around, into the world they are making.
This is why, alongside the artisans and entrepreneurs, we also need moralists: teachers and preachers to guide our young guides in this bewildering new world. For the old ideas – the ideas of virtue, and of the social covenant more widely – are the ones the new world needs. Given the great new powers young people will acquire, we need them to grow up with a proper respect for the culture they are heir to, and a proper founding in the ethics of its traditions.
This moral framework is relevant to the other great vocation we need more of: the vocation of care. Everyone knows from their own lives the foundational need for, and value of, human help when we are weak – at the start and end of life, and at moments of illness or trauma in between. The giving of this care may, possibly, be physically possible for some automaton of the near future, but it is unthinkable that we would ever want our children nursed by a machine, or a robot to hold our hand as we die.
As automation liberates us from deskbound clerical work – as it liberated previous generations from field and factory – new roles are opening up in the service of other people. In an earlier post (Proposition 8) I argued we can have abundance, not scarcity, in public services. Instead of the straightened ratios of the current system – one teacher to thirty children, one care worker to ten old people – we could flood society with help.
The pandemic has shown us what families and communities are potentially capable of. We can and should accelerate the transition that is underway, and help people play a role helping others, whether at home or in the community, or in some creative endeavour, or – where many jobs should be – in the environment. We need to be imaginative about financing this work, and about the potential for old-new forms of collective action and mutual support, such as trade unions once were, to help protect and equip people for it.