The Summer of Their Discontent

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OpEd News has published a version of this article at

My first “awakening,” if you like, came in 1991 as I and my wife were driving through a favorite semi-rural section of British Columbia when I suddenly realized that something was very, very different.

I first awoke to what was happening to work in 1991 as I and my wife were driving through a favorite semi-rural section of British Columbia, Canada. I suddenly realized that something was very, very different.

The landscape of the town we were passing through had changed. Gone were the Mom and Pops that we’d so much enjoyed stopping in. Everything had become the same as I knew and would expect to see in Vancouver — McDonalds restaurants, Starbucks coffee shops, 7-11 corner stores, franchises everywhere.

Not a corner store, restaurant or hotel could I see that might have been started by a local resident. All were national, and international, chains.

At that moment I had an epiphany. I saw what the computer was doing to work. Subsequently I began to research and write the provincial government, the provincial labor federation, newspapers, professional and trade councils, anyone I thought might be interested in or concerned about the impact the computer was having on work.

I began to write a huge book on predatory capitalism, which I completed but which never saw the light of day. I looked at all the trends in modern business — Just-in-Time production, lights-out factories, automated warehouses, etc.

No one was interested. Our love affair with the computer was so great at that time that no one would see me, no one responded to anything I sent along to them, nothing resulted from my brief stint as Cassandra, the prophet of gloom and doom.

I wrote an article for a national newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, on what to expect from automation. I listed all the job categories that I could think of, all the careers and professions, all the tasks that were susceptible to automation. I warned that robots did not pay taxes, consumed few goods and services, trained no one else, contributed no social benefit apart from capturing work and enriching the owners of capital.

That column is still being reproduced by some labor unions who took up the cry many years later, but at the time … nada.

I wrote a small book in which I took an American trade journal in the travel industry to task for promoting the bridging of the travel agent (at the time my wife was a travel agent) as an example of how people were being put out of work by machines. I sent it broadly to everyone connected with the trade journal or travel in any form I could think of. Probably little effect there either.

Everywhere the corporate machine was shredding jobs and shedding work.  Everywhere, whole trades, careers and professions, entry-level jobs, anything repetitive or automatable had been captured by the voracious computer.

Fast-forward to a few years ago, when I’d just retired from my final job. I was chatting with a relative whose son had had such a difficult time finding work. The son had a wife and baby daughter to provide for and had only been able to find at best short-term work, never anything steady, and these short-term assignments only at intervals, during which they required the parents’ and the wider families’ support. I tried my best to portray the situation facing the young people today.

What struck me at the time was that almost all entry-level jobs I could think of in almost any profession or trade had by then been automated. Certainly all the entry jobs I’d had, some of which had existed for years and in which I existed for years, some of which allowed me to change professions and jump from one field to another, or to travel and return to, no longer existed.

The son of my relatives, as well as the daughter for that matter, had never, as far as I recall, been able to find entry-level work in any career, had been obliged to stay in university as long as possible and to become “consultants” – everyone seemed to be a consultant in those days – and to do anything that came to hand to survive. Every friend and relative who had a scrap of work was tapped. Never mind a jack of all trades. They were staring at jack. Period.

Finally the son obtained a job at an oil company some 1500 miles away and was obliged to visit his family once every three weeks for a week, spending a day travelling there and a day travelling back, and simply relieving his wife for a week, who by now had two baby girls and a job herself.

This is the society we had become because, as I now consider, the captains of industry were using the computer to depress the situation of workers.

There isn’t room here to introduce the factor of sending jobs overseas. I’ll have to leave that for another time. But keep in mind that those jobs that survived the computer were frequently shipped abroad, further depressing the lot of workers here.

Those workers who managed to retain their jobs lost pensions, benefit plans, a decent wage, any security they had. It became a sellers’ market for labor and has remained that ever since, as far as I know.

Now notice that the youth of London, Birmingham, Liverpool and wherever else they’re rioting are not demanding political freedom (although they might if they knew what we do about the true nature of the London bombing and the erosion of constitutional rights). They are looting shops.

When I see that and remember what has been done to whittle down work, of the dead-end prospects of youth today, of the lack of opportunity for work alone, never mind the lack of advancement in the horizontal companies now existing for those lucky enough to land a job, I’m not surprised to see youth knocking over shops containing goods they probably can’t afford.

To say to me that there is no social content in what’s happening, no social comment, would be a tough sell.

We’ve automated work. We’ve shipped jobs overseas. We’ve gotten rid of white space at work. We’ve piled on more and more duties on the shoulders of those who remain employed. We’ve sped up the pace. We spy on workers’ phone usage, print usage, and online peregrinations. We attack unions. There is probably a racial factor at play in who gets jobs as well. Except where illegal immigrants can actually be used to further depress wages and destroy unions. All of these regrettable practices go on in a nominally “free” society.

This society does seem “free” for those at the upper end of the income scale but certainly not free, not freed up, not affordable to those unlucky enough to cluster at the other end of the scale. What is that famous sign which I’m sure has appeared in every city? People are free to sleep under bridges, starve in the streets, etc.?

Our societies in the West have become more inequitable every year. Anyone who could be exploited, demoted, downgraded, paid less, or deprived of benefits has been. Anyone who can’t find work finds the social-safety net that once existed almost shredded and  non-existent now. And we sit here wondering why the youth of London are burning down buildings and looting shops.

I don’t condone rioting and destruction, but I also don’t condone what we’ve done to work, what we’ve done to wages and benefits, and what we’ve done to our youth. A careless and uncaring society has seen the youth turn on them. Can we really wonder why they might do such a thing? Can you tighten a coil forever before it breaks? How much have we asked the youth to bear in these last ten to thirty years? How much of our affluence has been purchased through their misery? How little are their prospects for the future? What stake have they in this society? What have they to lose?

I can’t say I’m surprised to see what’s happening in British cities. If we don’t see the arrival of a just and equitable financial system, NESARA, soon, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same happen here.

Come to think of it, the same did happen here, after the Stanley Cup final game, when youth rampaged in downtown Vancouver. Again, what did they hit? The local shops, which they looted.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see their discontent spread. We waited too long. We cared too little. And now we’re paying the price.


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