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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 23-09-2017 10:40

The coming of the robots

Though the jobs Macri and his favourite gurus have in mind may be thick on the ground today, there is no guarantee that there will be many of them tomorrow.

In most parts of the world it is agreed that from now on a country’s “competitiveness” will depend on the academic level of its inhabitants. Experts tell us that for those countries in which lots of people have university degrees or, at the very least, have learned a useful trade, the future will be bright, while others will lag further and further behind.

This view is fully shared by Mauricio Macri and his advisors. They take it for granted that Argentina’s labour force urgently needs upgrading. Like their counterparts elsewhere, they want youngsters to acquire skills that will enable them to do the “high quality” jobs – most of which will demand a familiarity with the latest technological developments – they assume will become increasingly plentiful in the coming years.

This may seem fair enough, but the way things are going such an approach could soon prove out-dated. Though the jobs Macri and his favourite gurus have in mind may be thick on the ground today, there is no guarantee that there will be many of them tomorrow. Looming over the horizon is a technological revolution that has already left once crowded factories almost empty, is rapidly eliminating swathes of clerical work and is doing away with a multitude of managerial and professional tasks. In developed countries, you may still find former middle-ranking executives making ends meet by flipping hamburgers or putting bars of soap on supermarket shelves, but fairly soon these last-ditch alternatives will be denied them, as will any hope of scraping a living by driving a taxi.

Not surprisingly, people who have seen their chances of earning the decent living they thought was their birthright vanish are feeling desperate. That is one reason, perhaps the main one, why in North America and Europe, so many are pinning their hopes on political movements that upholders of the status quo denigrate as “populist” or “right-wing.”

Donald Trump got elected not just because he enjoyed sticking it to what the disgruntled call the ‘sneering classes,’ though that certainly helped, but also because he promised to bring back the well-paid, hands-on factory jobs that had allegedly been stolen by Mexicans, Chinese and others who – unlike most North Americans – were willing to work hard for a pittance. Many who greatly disliked the man agreed that repatriating jobs that had been sent abroad by corporations run by individuals who proved more than willing to throw loyal employees onto the trash heap if that helped them make fatter profits would be sensible enough, but unless the world goes into reverse, Trump’s chances of achieving much will remain slight.

Big companies in the United States and Europe are already bringing home operations they had outsourced overseas in order to take advantage of lower salary scales, but they are doing so only because computerised production systems can be far cheaper than old-fashioned ones employing large numbers of dexterous Chinese or Bangladeshis. Their renewed presence may give a modest boost to the economy of a depressed area, but they do not provide that many high-quality jobs.

Optimists who point out that all previous economic transformations have led to more enticing opportunities and so there is nothing much to worry about may be right when they point out that plenty of openings are appearing for people who possess skills that were barely unimaginable half a century ago. Unfortunately, most call for qualifications that only a minority can ever hope to acquire.

Governments the world over agree that education holds the key but, living as they do in a raucously egalitarian age, they are prone to overlook the unfortunate fact that few people have the abilities needed to take full advantage of what has become a growth industry. To fob off the non-academic, “Mickey Mouse” degree courses have proliferated of late, but young people who graduate in them or in something that includes the word “studies” – especially “gender studies” or “peace studies” – tend to be on the dole.

While in much of the developed world it is currently taken for granted that most youngsters will have to settle for a standard of living that is inferior to that of their parents, in Argentina the situation is different. Thanks to underdevelopment accompanied by mass poverty, expectations here are lower than in North America or Europe where what Barack Obama called “shovel-ready jobs” are disdained by the many who enter the labour market with a diploma in something they assume ought to guarantee them a prestigious position in society, as was the case in the past, when far fewer people went to universities.

Those who pin their faith on education believe schools and universities should concentrate on teaching kids scientific subjects that are related to technology. In Argentina, they want to see far more engineers and far fewer lawyers. But preparing people for a world in which machines do most of the work, leaving huge numbers of individuals free to do whatever they like, presents a very different challenge, one that not only philosophers but – much as they may dislike the idea – politicians and educationalists will have to face.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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