In the 1997 Simpsons episode, The Secret War of Lisa Simpson, Lisa and Bart’s military school commander tells his charges what to expect in the wars of the future: “most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.”
It might have been more accurate to say “control those robots from a computer 7000 miles away”, but it was prescient nonetheless. Babies born that year have just had their A-Level results and are entering a world where assumptions about work are being demolished as we contemplate the impact of drones, driverless cars and abundant information on the wider economy.
If more tasks can be computerised, where will jobs for the humans come from? It makes you wish we didn’t need to work so much in the first place.
Well, John Maynard Keynes already had this idea back in 1928. Advances in technology, the economist argued, would put more of the workload on to machines, leaving people with a 15-hour work week and plenty of leisure time to play football with their kids, learn the trombone, or binge-watch Netflix (I paraphrase).
This never materialised for most of us, because we need to work to – at the very least – feed, house, clothe and warm ourselves. Since Keynes’s day, the average working week has shortened to 37 and a half hours, and the number of holidays has risen, but many of us are still stressed out with long commutes, out-of-hours emails or extra jobs to make ends meet.
Inflation is currently zero or thereabouts, which should ease the pressure, but it fails to reflect one reason growing numbers of us cannot afford to work less. Of our basic human needs, food, clothes and even energy are getting cheaper, but the price of housing – our biggest expense – is out of control, and rapidly becoming a luxury good.
Since the late 90s, before the number of private renters doubled, the Consumer Price Index has risen by 38 per cent. But as Generation Rent has found the median rent for private tenants – as recorded by the Family Resources Survey – has risen by 80 per cent. That works out as an extra £29.72 a week renters are giving to their landlords instead of spending as they please. Some renters are stretched and £30 a week would let them keep on top of bills and buy their kids new shoes. Others could finally give themselves that holiday they deserve. Some could raise a deposit for a house – and if rents were lower, there’d be less demand for properties from buy-to-let landlords and desperate first-time buyers, so house prices wouldn’t be so ridiculously high.
Or renters could work less. Over a year we pay £1545.56 more in rent than we would if it behaved like everything else we bought. Add on the income tax and national insurance you incur while earning that money, and that’s £2272.88 less you need to earn – 8.7 per cent of the £26,052 the average private renter household makes in a year. That’s the equivalent of 3 hours 16 minutes of the average working week. Imagine: knocking off at 2pm every Friday. Not quite Keynes’s vision, but it’s a start.
Instead, negligence by governments of the past 15 years has forced us to keep our noses to the grindstone to keep a roof over our head, and now technology threatens to make a reasonable wage harder to find.
One benefit of the technological revolution is that the internet makes it possible to work remotely. More of us might be able to move to cheaper parts of the country and work from home. But that won’t work for the two types of labour that will remain in relatively high demand.
Future economic growth is likely to depend on creative, knowledge-based industries that actively harness new technology. They will rely on clusters of highly networked people working near each other – and their robots. And there are the less exciting and less valued types of work which nevertheless rely on human interaction: two obvious examples are hospitality and care.
These sectors will take on a greater share of employment in future, and anyone working in them has to find a home within a reasonable travel time from their workplace. Government policy past and present is making this harder to afford, which risks choking off growing industries and stoking a crisis in public services.
The government has to start giving local authorities the power to bring down rents, while investing heavily in new housing supply. And for today’s school leavers staring into the abyss of the post-drone economy, there’s always the construction sector.