Our population is aging, within fifteen years the number of people over 65 will rise by over 50%. Our economy is changing as automation threatens to replace anything between a third and a half of the workforce with machines. These are not primarily demographic or economic challenges, they are social ones. The question in need of an answer is not can we find replacement jobs at a level of productivity sufficient to pay for the care of the elderly, it is can we do that before our society tears itself apart?
The core idea behind the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and on the Left in general is that Austerity is a choice and cuts have been compelled by ideological, not fiscal, necessity. This idea is dangerously half true. The Conservatives exaggerated the need to reduce spending in 2010, but it’s not the case that governments can freely choose any level of spending they want. Public spending is limited by the value of the goods and services produced by working people which can be appropriated from them while maintaining their consent to be governed.
In order to pay for the pensions and healthcare of a larger retired population, each worker has to be more productive to generate a bigger surplus of goods and services beyond those the worker expects to keep for themself. Automation could deliver those productivity gains but it will likely put that surplus in the hands of multinational companies and super rich individuals who are best placed to avoid the giant tax bill of the elderly populace.
While the profits of automation may disappear offshore the problems left in its wake will not. Failure to leave education with useful skills or qualifications was a set of personal tragedies when the people affected had to spend their lives doing mundane, low-paid work. When there is no work at all it stops being just their problem and becomes everybody's problem. And our school system guarantees that some will be in this position. We judge all pupils by the same narrow criteria and for all the pressure we pile on teachers to see that their kids don't fail, some of them have to. If everyone passed the exams would have no rigour.
How will the hundreds of thousands who graduate each year into a society with no use for them react? After the riots in 2011 a concensus quickly developed that, having no political ideology, the rioters were mere criminals and could be dismissed as such. But ideologies can spread at the speed of a retweet, their absence is not what is significant. The lack of respect the rioters showed for their fellow citizens and their property is far more alarming. We live now with people who will loot and burn if the spell of law and order is broken and we plan on reducing their chances of finding jobs at a time when paying for the care of the elderly will make funding even our shrunken benefits system a challenge.
Where should the missing respect for society come from? Should teachers inspire it while telling poor children they are failures, underserving of professional success? Should their parents teach them to respect a society that offers bright futures to others, but not them? People treat others the way they have been treated, so isn’t it madness to expect respect and support from those whose formative experience of society is a humiliating lesson in their own worthlessness?
The situation may spiral out of control. Each subsequent riot erodes support for measures to improve the lot of the economically left behind, while increasing demands that money and manpower are devoted to the unproductive activity of locking people up. Waiting for the next storm to hit all but guarantees a counter productive response. Working class jobs went from something you were proud to do, to something you just did and society carried on, but the difference between a good job and a bad one is far smaller than the difference between a bad job and no job at all. It would be tragically ironic if we reached such technological heights we lounged in machine-made luxury for a moment, before our bestial refusal to treat others as worthy of the same led them to burn it down around our ears.
In 1789 France was the richest country in Europe but its government was broke, having foolishly exempted the richest citizens from tax. The elites tried a mixture of tax increases and money printing to honour their promises and maintain their hold on power. In the chaos that followed they, and thousands of others, were killed. Victims of fiscal incompetence and refusal to give up undeserved privileges.