“The notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common ‘platform’ is, to our minds, faintly ridiculous,” said one of the judges on the employment tribunal. So the tribunal ruled that Uber’s 30,000 drivers in London were actually employees, and therefore entitled to be paid the minimum wage, to be given sick pay, even to have paid holidays.
But it was only a temporary victory for workers’ rights, because just as the real jobs have been replaced by fake “freelance” jobs like Uber, so the “freelance” driving gigs will soon be replaced by – no jobs at all.
The first self-driving cars are already on the roads. Automation, in the form of artificial intelligence, will probably abolish almost all the driving jobs in the next twenty years. In Britain alone, that means 400,000 jobs driving big trucks and almost 300,000 licensed taxi drivers. (The jobs driving delivery vans will last a little longer.)
Scale it up to the size of the United States, and that’s around 4 million more American jobs gone, not to foreign competition and “outsourcing” but just to technological change. It’s harder to replace drivers than bank tellers – “every ATM is the ghost of three bank tellers” – but it just takes a little longer to develop the right software.
There is a message here for all the angry people who voted for Brexit in Britain, who will vote for Donald Trump next week in the United States, who will vote for Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France next April. They are angry because the secure jobs and decent living standards they enjoyed in the latter half of the 20th century are gone – but they are not coming back.
This is a global economic transformation comparable to the industrial revolution, when entire populations went from overwhelmingly rural to overwhelmingly urban in only two generations. This time the transformation is from a full-employment economy to an economy of abundance that only requires a fraction of the population to work.
A 2013 study by Oxford University economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne concluded that 47 percent of American jobs are likely to be destroyed by automation in the next 20 years. That’s change so big and so fast that people can’t believe it’s happening, so they prefer to focus on something like out-sourcing that might be fixed by politics.
The industrial revolution was an angry, turbulent time, with urban uprisings and class warfare. We’ll be lucky if the damage this time is limited to demagogues like Donald Trump, who pander to the fear and anger of the newly displaced – and not just the displaced of the old working class, but the growing numbers of middle-class people who are also being displaced by machines.
Yet most of them actually hated their jobs. The real task will be to find ways of providing a majority of our fellow-citizens with money and self-respect without those jobs. Some form of Guaranteed Minimum Income is probably the answer, but we have barely got round to asking the right question yet.
This is not a disaster; it’s a process. Last time it took over a century of mass misery and occasional mass bloodshed to get through it, but at the end most people were living much longer, healthier, more interesting lives than their peasant ancestors. We should try to do it a lot better and quicker this time.