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The ballot question we should all be asking

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

There is a lot of talk around elections about “Ballot Questions.”  People go to the polls with many different questions on their minds that influence whose name they will check off on their ballot. In the current election, we have already seen political candidates attempt to win voters by posing ballot questions that they hope will woo voters to vote for their party and their policies. But none of the candidates have answered the question that I will be taking to the polls. It will not be, “Who will let more refugees in?” It will not be, “Who will balance the budget?” It will not even be, “Who will make electoral reform a priority?” although this is of particular concern to me. My question is, “Who will successfully guide us through the next 20 years of change?”

Perhaps there are others who are asking this same question. At the age of 28, I have worked in factories, done manual labour, worked in offices, retail stores, cafés, schools, in a machine shop, in a hotel. I have lived in three different cities in Canada as an adult, in nine different apartments with twenty different roommates. I think people like me are called Millennials, though I haven’t read enough to know for sure. I know that many of “my generation” are asking themselves what will happen next. Many of us are in precarious work situations or in work situations we believe at our core to be irrelevant. We are asked on a daily basis to suspend personal responsibility for our work, and continue within a system we know is broken because our job is not to fix it. These are probably classic complaints of Millennials, and you can criticize them if you will. But under these “complaints” lies a very real fear about the future and I often wonder if there are others who are concerned, people from many generations, and who sport all kinds of political stripes. 

We are entering an era where human labour is in oversupply, an era where we will require a whole new definition of work and its function. Technology is rapidly making obsolete hundreds of professions, putting immense pressure on the remaining ones to accommodate a willing workforce. It is the reason why it is possible to demand five years of experience for an entry-level position, and why most people require multiple degrees to find work in their field. I am a certified teacher, and yet I find myself occupying a position at a café that a high school student could have. And this is happening across multiple industries. Where many talented individuals might at one time have taken up a trade such as woodworker, or tool and dye-maker, they are now forced to perform work in a much more limited number of sectors and perform many fewer tasks. How many new houses are built with vinyl doors, windows, and siding? How many tradespeople would once have built the doors, made the custom windows, and laid the brick? These jobs are gone, the demand for their technical skills and craftsmanship replaced by the demand for “installers” and “fitters.” 

Many will say that this has happened for centuries; old jobs, as essential as they might seem, are replaced easily by ones which reflect changes in technology. People adapt, and new jobs are created, the economy is left unaffected. However, there are hints that things might be different this time. A 2013 report published by the McKinsey Global Institute titled Disruptive Technologies: Advances that will transform life, business and the global economy discussed how this might be the case. In it, the authors identify several advances, including the autonomous car that are truly “disruptive” and may leave an unprepared workforce in a serious job deficit. Several articles published this year reported that by the year 2025 - that is, within ten years - autonomous or driverless vehicles will become commercially available. The technology already exists and is being tested on roads in the United States (and elsewhere to be sure) as we speak. This will mean that within ten years, we will see increasing pressure from trucking companies to allow autonomous vehicles on the roads. We will also see fleets of autonomous vehicles threatening to replace the entire taxi industry. The technology will face resistance from truckers unions, and taxi driver unions, but in the end, these vocations will face the inevitable reality that drivers are simply no longer necessary.

And rightly so! So much human energy is wasted on menial tasks that ought to be performed by automated processes, which will be more efficient and more reliable than human labour. The questions that remain are, “What will these hundreds of thousands of people do for a living?” and perhaps more importantly, “What is the meaning and purpose of work in a society where human labour is largely unnecessary to produce and deliver the goods that humans demand?” 

Perhaps these are foolish questions to pose, especially foolish to pose to political candidates in Canada’s federal election since at least two of the candidates will be retired in twenty years. But I cannot help but ask, because I don’t feel we are prepared, and it doesn’t seem like anyone with the power to prepare us is worried about it. They seem content to bail out industries “too big to fail” with tax dollars that they plan to collect from generations to come. Meanwhile, we live a reality of scarce employment that looks radically different from the reality our parents faced, and face a future that looks radically different yet. And I wonder, if this is how I feel, with all the privilege that a white man in 2015 is granted, how drastic is the situation for others? And how much more drastic will it become?

So as the days count down to the election, I’ll be waiting for an answer to my question. Realistically, I’m fearful that I won’t get one, but I’m hopeful that someone will at least make an effort.

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verbiadj (David Lacalamita)
Toronto & Montreal
Member since May 2011


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