Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Labour Day


I learned how to blog from a master, Chris Brogan. Chris has an unfailing framework - think of a topic, find a Creative Commons picture on flickr, and take it from there. While I can't pretend to be in his league as far as useful posts are concerned, at least I can follow his framework. So far, I like it - let me know if you don't, and if not, why not.

So I went looking for a picture about Labour Day. I found lots of lovely beach and barbecue photographs, which I guess is how most North Americans spend this day. I was hoping to find a picture of the massive march that took place in Toronto today, honouring Jack Layton, but no such luck. Since I only use Creative Commons pictures, I was a little stuck. Then I found this picture, of a sign with no workers. Bingo.

A few years ago, I was very excited to read Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat". It's a hymn of praise to globalisation, to the commodification of labour. Any job that can be automated, will be, or else it will be outsourced to a cheaper worker in a Third World country who can (and will) do the same work for much lower pay. The response of the West has been to turn to those things that cannot be automated - design, analysis, the creative work. As Daniel Pink says in his book "A Whole New Mind", the MFA is the new MBA. All very exciting for those creative, right-brain types who have been struggling in a world designed by left-brain people. (This is a fun test to see which one you are!).

But what about the millions of people who are still being churned out by early-20th-century schools, prepared for work in factories that aren't there? While it is true that some manufacturing appears to be coming back, given that they don't make cheap Chinese labour like they used to, these dark Satanic mills aren't going to provide the kind of pay and perks that used to follow from a Grade 12 education. So nowadays everybody has to go to post-secondary education and load themselves down with impossible levels of student debt. When they come out, four years older, they may or may not find a position that will allow them to pay it off.

If they are smart, they go into "high-touch" professions such as nursing or cooking. Nobody has yet figured out how to outsource changing an IV bag or putting actual food on a plate. While the radiologist who analyses your MRI might be in another country, the technologist who puts you in the machine has to be in the same room with you. Both the dentist who repairs your teeth and the hygienist who cleans them have to be real people in physical contact with you. The plumber who unplugs your toilet and the roofer who fixes your ice dams cannot do these things from India. For these professions, the future does not look as bleak. While all these jobs could conceivably be automated, it is debatable whether people would want them to be. While many of us dream of a robot maid like Rosie, few of us are looking to have our teeth cleaned or our appendix removed by robots.

So, what's the answer? If I could predict the future, I wouldn't be worrying about funding my retirement. Given the breathtaking rapidity with which the world has been changing, I would not presume to predict the kind of professions my children might be looking at - there are many jobs now that did not exist ten years ago. The tragedy is in the mismatch between the skills of the unemployed and those required by the employers. A whole generation is being laid off and declared redundant. This is an incredibly dangerous and volatile situation. If our governments do not have the wisdom and resources to deal with it, the riots in London and Vancouver will only be the beginning.

What do you think? What kind of schooling will save our generation, and the ones that follow?

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