I went to a wedding last year. It was like touring the Somme in late August 1916. All around me lay The Fallen. I don’t mean actual dead people, I mean friends, colleagues, acquaintances, who used to be journalists with me, back in the day, but who have now dropped out of this shrinking profession, to retrain as solicitors, teachers, house-husbands.
It was a scene of beastly carnage. I almost called for stretcher bearers.
I know it’s hard to elicit sympathy for journalists amongst the great British public, so I’m not going to bother; I’m just giving you the facts. And the fact is: the internet has devoured my industry, eaten up newspaper profits, killed off dozens of magazines (including the lad mags where I got my journalistic chops), and, basically, laid waste.
So what, you might say, they deserved it: hacking, Page 3, Guardianistas, Piers Morgan, Polly Tuscany, yadda yadda yadda.
But you can stop your chortling because the internet is coming for your job, too. Tim Berners-Lee’s little invention, allied to other technologies, has become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
A recent, fascinating article in the Economist, quoting a study by professors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University, made this quite clear. Frey and Osborne believe that fully 47 percent of all jobs are at risk of being “automated”.
Given that only eight percent of Brits are employed in manufacturing, this implies that most of these menaced jobs are in service industries – they belong to white collar types – and this is precisely spelled out by Frey and Osborne.
If you are, say, an accountant, a telemarketer, a retail salesperson, a commercial pilot, an estate agent, a machinist, an economist (hah!), a translator, or a health technologist, your job is seriously at risk of being automated, quite soon, in some internetty way. And don’t bother retraining as a lowly solicitor – they are threatened, too. According to Frey and Osborne, the best jobs – i.e. the jobs least likely to be replaced by a machine, an avatar or an algorithm – are “recreational therapist”, “athletics trainer”, or “vicar”. I am not joking.
What’s worse, the advance of digital technology into the professions is not the only force bearing down, perniciously, on western incomes. Globalization is another factor.
I write this from a Thai hotel where the smart, determined workforce put in 14 hour days, for $10 a day, six days a week (and they somehow keep smiling).
There are maybe three billion people like this across Asia: and they want what we have, and they are prepared to work harder than us, for less money, and they don’t expect 18 months maternity pay, or tax credits for the seventh child. And modern industrial techniques, allied to immigration, mean that these people can do our jobs, either in our countries, or in their own.
See how it adds up? You can write it as an equation if you like: take all those call centers in Bangalore, multiply them by the potential of 3D printing, and you get the answer: the West is screwed.
Evidence of our demise has been around a while. In America the average real wage has barely moved in decades. In the UK and Germany, wages have been flat for ten years. Other western countries are following the same path. At the same time, the number of non-employed (those who never even try to get a job) is rising: from 1 in 20 American males in the 1960s to maybe 1 in 7 in 2024 (according to extrapolations by US former Treasury Sec, Larry Summers).
What will this future western world look like? Where incomes never rise, where a job becomes increasingly rare? Who knows. We might be rescued, paradoxically, by new technology, or by shale gas, but what seems more likely is that we are facing, at best, several decades of stagnation, until the East catches up. Given what we are used to, this will feel strange. And seriously painful.
And that is what no politician will tell you, because none of them can do anything about it, and because they’re scared how you will react. So I will tell you instead. We’re doomed. It’s finished. The end has arrived. Pack away your kazoos, and burn all the bunting. The great and gaudy parade that was Endlessly Rising Western Prosperity, 1945-2008, is over.