GARY MACDOUGALL: Society’s right to work

As a society, we are becoming too efficient at shedding jobs and dreams and leaving too many individuals on the outside looking in

Gary MacDougall
Published on January 6, 2017

A typical auto manufacturing production floor will have thousands of industrial robots lined up doing multiple tasks.

©(Submitted photo)

Many years ago as a young reporter I felt underpaid and overworked. I had a crisis of faith in terms of my chosen field of employment.


Looking back, I was likely being paid about what I should have earned, given my education and experience.

Unlike myself, many young people in the 1960s had chosen the booming economy of southern Ontario to find employment. The cars they drove when they returned home for summer vacations made me chafe at my lot in life.

I had chosen journalism, and it’s a decision I am eternally grateful for. It’s just one of many noble professions that allow individuals to lead a fulfilling life, raise a family and make a contribution to society.

No matter our skillsets and circumstances, we all deserve an opportunity to become a contributing member of society. I love attending retirement functions of people whose job titles may not have been that grand but they loved their work and it gave meaning to their life. It’s the circle of life stuff - grow up, get a job, raise a family and look for a rocking chair.

Historically, much has been accomplished in society when it comes to education, health care and lifestyle thanks to the slow but steady power of one generation doing its bit to help the next one.

Society is at a crossroads when it comes to traditional employment. Progress in the form of new technology and automation is replacing the need for human workers at an alarming rate.

Where once factories were elbow to elbow with fellow workers, now they only need a few human overseers and a building filled with robots of all shapes and sizes. The robots need maintaining, but they don’t need days off or health and pension benefits.

Journalist Gwynne Dyer wrote recently that about half the remaining full-time jobs in advanced countries would be eliminated by automation in the next 10-20 years. He says the old argument in defence of technological change - that it creates more new jobs than it destroys - no longer holds water.

A good example is the move towards driverless vehicles. While many may scoff at the idea, make no mistake: it’s coming at us like a speeding freight train.

Imagine the impact on the millions of people whose employment depends on motor vehicles, for example taxi drivers, long-haul truck drivers and delivery services.

You can’t stop progress, nor would you want to. The many beneficial advances in living conditions and life expectancy through the centuries are proof of that.

But in our past, society always had room for everyone to contribute. In fact, it was necessary for growth.

Increasingly, huge swaths of individuals are being squeezed out of the job market because of automation. An example of the discontent that can produce was seen in the number of workers who voted for Donald Trump in the recent U.S. election.

Our rush to embrace globalization and automation is creating a class system of workers who fit in with the new economy and those that do not. And, by the way, those who are a snug fit today may not be tomorrow.

Job losses might be easier to dismiss if society was better at spreading the wealth around, but, sadly that’s not the case. Those who depend on a helping hand usually only get enough to keep them on the fringes.

Newsrooms routinely report on stories about a business closing due to automation or some new efficiency. The standing joke always was: “It’s a good job they haven’t invented machines that can write stories.” I’m not so sure that boast can be made any more with such certainty.

A conversation is looming about the need to balance workplace efficiency and the mighty dollar and the right of people to fair access to the job market. We will also need to explore things like a guaranteed annual income and free education and childcare.

As we become more efficient at shedding jobs and producing widgets, we will need to become more efficient at sharing our wealth.


- Gary MacDougall, a long-time P.E.I. journalist, can be reached at