The Future Arrived and We Missed It

In 1957, Stockholm hosted the St. Erik International Trade Fair on Automation. The fair was a dazzling display of inventions that included new gadgets called robots. They were essentially tools that could do simple, multi-step tasks. The word robot came from a 1921 Czechoslovakian dystopian play in which machines, called robota, replaced humans. Robata is Czech for labour.

Inventor George Devol Jr. met physicist Joseph Engleberger at a cocktail party. They discovered a shared interest in electronics and robotics and the potential of the recent invention of the integrated circuit. Shortly afterward, they formed a company, Unimation, and created a robotic arm that synthesized all the current work going on in university and government labs. By 1961, General Motors had purchased the robotic arm and it was hard at work on one of their New Jersey assembly lines. It took red-hot pieces of metal from a die casting machine and placed them in neat piles. The robot saved money by improving the line’s efficiency and replacing expensive workers. GM then bought and employed several Unimation robot welders.

General Motors’ successful use of robots inspired others until, by the 1970s, nearly every thriving manufacturing company in the world had robots on their lines. Production increased and profits rose as labour costs fell. By the 1990s, robots had become so sophisticated that they were even doing jobs that required decision-making and complex thought. A giant leap was taken when robots began using algorithms to design better versions of themselves.

The Future Arrived and we Missed It

(Photo: Business Insider)

India, China, Mexico and others adapted robots to their assembly lines while also offering multinational corporations cheap labour, lax health and environmental regulations, and low taxes. Because corporations are beholden to shareholders, and not to workers or a particular country, they jumped. American, British, and Canadian factories that had provided employment for generations either shrank or closed. Empty, rusting factories and the shuttered businesses that once supplied them and provided services to haunted souls and hollowed cities stood as mocking monuments to broken dreams and an era’s end. The plants that survived did so by trading workers for robots who never erred, stopped to eat or pee, or went on strike.

Robots helped break capitalism’s cycle where production boosted wages, increased spending, which, in turn, demanded more production. It threatened the concept of consumer capitalism and, in fact, capitalism itself. In 2010, American permanent job losses were compared to new job creation and it was discovered that the 21st century’s first decade had created not a single new job. This was unprecedented and frightening.

The changes robots brought about gave rise to populist politicians who spoke to the frustration of those whose dreams of better for themselves and their children were as shattered as their once-gleaming but now disintegrating cities. People were told that others, and the “other”, were to blame. But apportioning blame is not the same as presenting a solution and anger and fear are not strategies. Those who asked the next question knew that India, Mexico, and China could close every one of their manufacturing plants and western countries could slam shut their borders to every immigrant and refugee, and it would change very little. The robots have the jobs and they are not giving them back.

In February 2017, Dominic Martin was the bearer of bad news. As the head of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Economic Growth Advisory Council, he had been studying the effects of robots and automation on the job market. He reported that due to the increasing automation of jobs in every sector of the Canadian economy, within ten years about 40% of all jobs currently in existence will be gone. Martin’s estimate was close to that of the American McKinsey and Company. It reported in 2016 that 45% of all jobs currently done by American workers will be automated with ten years.

The Canadian and American reports mirrored findings in other countries. Driverless vehicles will replace truck and taxi drivers. Automated check-in and check-out devices will continue to replace grocery store clerks, bank tellers, fast food order-takers, and hotel desk attendants. Automated and online purchasing will continue to replace independent store owners and retail sales staff. Automated robots will replace more agricultural workers as they plant seed, pick fruit, prune trees, and milk cows. Automated calculators will replace more accountants and automated tutors will replace more teachers while automated drones will replace couriers and on, and on, and on. If the Martin and the Kinsley reports are correct, by the year 2030, the unemployment rate in countries like Canada, the United States, Germany, and Britain will reach about 47%. That is a staggering number. Consider that at the height of the Great Depression, that catastrophic collapse that threatened capitalism and democracy and abetted the rise of tyrants like Adolf Hitler, the unemployment rate peaked 30%.

The changes brought about by the invention of robots will continue to change our world in ways that fundamentally change how we live and work and measure success. Capitalism and democracy will change. And the robots won’t care.

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Seeking the Elusive Community

Every poet from William Shakespeare to John Lennon has tried to define love. They all failed. Good. To precisely define a concept of such profundity is to trivialize and cheapen it. Such is the also the case with other notions of importance and among them is community. Community is being tested today in countries and companies and schools. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves to walk the poet’s mile toward community’s unattainable definition with the hope that the existential journey affords wisdom, or at least grace.

Community is a feeling. It grows from shared values, interests, experiences, and goals. We are social animals and so we naturally seek community. It is the yearning or circumstances that lead some to churches and others to street gangs. It is the warmth and smiles of a book club or slow pitch ball team.

National community is dynamic. Most of us are born, live, and die in one country. We find community in implicitly accepting the power of the state, complaining about government, and in the embrace of values that link we the people – the nation. It is community that brings us to our feet for the anthem and after a trip abroad makes the flag look so damn good. It is the national community we miss when emigrating and that offers culture shock to immigrants. The kind-of-heart see the national community as a quilt and celebrate each unique square. On the other hand, the frightened and angry – and those fanning the flames for political gain – tear at community by seeing it as an exclusive tree fort and advocate throwing “the other” out while pushing down the ladder.

Seeking the Illusive Community(Photo: http://www.asantecentre.org)

Corporate community is ephemeral. With new jobs, we sweat the interview, endure our rookie mistakes, and then eventually fit in. We contribute. We finally get the history and jokes. Some colleagues become friends. We become part of the team, part of the community. However, no matter how many casual Fridays, tipsy parties, mission statements, motivational speeches, or team building retreats we enjoy and endure, the boss is always the boss.

Sometimes the boss’ decisions lead to radical policy shifts or dismissals. Unexpected, poorly communicated, or unsupported decisions are painful for those whose experience is demeaned and beliefs belittled. They are tragic for the unfairly and suddenly gone and heartrending for those suffering survival guilt. All are stunned by the realization that they are not really valuable and valued members of a community but interchangeable units of labour. They become haunted. They become hunted. They are torn by the thought that their community is really not a community at all.

National and corporate community builders would do well to read David Rieff’s In Praise of Forgetting. He decries communities that commemorate every anniversary of some riot, battle, attack, or assassination with sparks of fresh rage. Rieff is not saying we should forget our past, but rather that we should learn to learn from it, accept it, and for the good of the community and ourselves, move on.

Linked to Rieff’s idea, and equally worthy of consideration, is the crazy thought that South Africa, the country that institutionalized racist discrimination, became the world’s model as to how a community recovers from a catastrophic past. The brilliant Nelson Mandela convinced not everyone but enough that speaking the truth of what happened, and why, and by whom, and to whom, would lead to reconciliation. Mandela did not say we should forget, rather that we should explain, understand, atone, and forgive. Canada is now trying the Mandela-Rieff ideas with its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

All communities live on trust. In Johannesburg, as in Ottawa and Washington, and as in every broken corporate or school community, slogans and tag lines mean nothing. Promises mean nothing. Office, title, and job description mean nothing. Hierarchy is a bad and sad joke. Teams made separate are made irrelevant. Truth untold is rumours confirmed. Communities remain strong and broken communities can only be made whole again when trust is unquestioned. Trust is born only of patience, empathy, respect, honesty, loyalty, and transparency. It is seen in how we treat others, all others, when there is no one else around and nothing to gain. Only those who understand that community is not mechanical but organic can contribute to regenerating trust. Those committed to silos or levels of power or walls of exclusion can’t build bridges.

We owe it to ourselves to preserve strong communities and reconstitute those that deserve recovery. We need to understand and celebrate the strength in those that are thriving. In others, we must mourn that which was broken and help those who were hurt. Let’s shun the shouters, dividers, and serial liars. Let’s ignore the cynics, sycophants, and saboteurs. Tomorrow’s community is for those who hope and work for better, armed with lessons learned and wisdom earned.

A values-based community offers explanation and inspiration, a ladder and a net, and shelter from the storm. It’s worth the work. And maybe that’s as close to a definition as we need.

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Job Losses and Bean Sprouts

Kindergarten teachers have children plant beans in little cups. The exercise is simple but the lesson profound: everything is born, everything constantly changes, and everything dies. One of the smartest people I’ve known once reminded me of that lesson.

Job Losses and Bean Sprouts

(Photo: http://www.lessthanperfectparents.com)

For 42 years, my grandfather worked in a Hamilton, Ontario steel plant called Dofasco. Years after his retirement, he read of a new round of layoffs that were shrinking the place to a skeleton of what it had once been. He shared nostalgic stories of the post-war years when Dofasco thrived. He spoke of how the company president, whom he always respectfully called Mr. Sherman, would often mingle on plant floors speaking with the workers, asking opinions, slapping backs, and shaking hands.

The Dofasco golf, bowling, hockey, and baseball leagues for workers and their families contributed to the sense of community and created a feeling of family. At the huge annual Christmas party, Santa had a gift for every child. When union organizers came to Dofasco every few years they were run out of the place because the trust that existed between management and labour rendered unionization unnecessary.

My grandfather retired in 1975. The OPEC oil shock had just happened. The western world’s industrial revolution that, for a century, had built manufacturing plants like Dofasco was ending. A right wing movement that would alter government’s role in protecting workers and regulating corporations was beginning. The beanstalk in the little cup was wilting.

Dofasco’s big shrink began in the ‘80s. By the ‘90s, whole departments were shuttered, equipment was sold or scrapped, and buildings were torn down. My grandfather called one day and invited me to a Dofasco open house. It was great. There were old guys who remembered him and I was proud of the reception he received. He marvelled at the computers in a control room that had once been manually operated. He was shocked by the cleanliness of the pickle line and by how few people were making it all work.

More than the technical changes, however, on the drive home he spoke of his old buddies confirming what he had already surmised. With the new challenges and changes had come new managers and management systems. Mr. Sherman, and all he had represented, was gone. Globalization and domestic economic and political changes were not the fault of the current CEO but when old ways began to die he was none the less accused of murder and his middle managers deemed accomplices. First trust, then loyalty, and finally community disappeared. There was talk of union.

But my grandfather was smart. He said, “Johnny, nothing ever stays the same forever.” The Dofasco he had known was gone and would never be back. Its tag line remained Our Product is Steel Our Strength is People, but no one believed it any more; it had become a cynical punchline. He spoke of how young people working there now would never understand how the place used to be and even less of how it felt. A few years later there was another open house. He didn’t want to go. There was nothing for him to visit. The bean in the cup had died.

Deaths are always hard. We all know that fundamental change in any organization effects most is what can be empirically measured least. We all know that stages of grief are suffered by those asked to leave and by those left to mourn what and who were lost. We all know that decisions made at one level always have consequences on others. We also know that losing money is seldom a job dismissal’s highest price. The theft of identity, dignity, community, and faith in what was once sincerely believed are much deeper wounds that, for some, even in those left behind, never heal. That was my grandfather. Dofasco had afforded him a living and source of pride, right up until it broke his heart.

Next September, Kindergarten teachers will have children plant beans in little cups. The kids will proudly bring them home and parents will share in the watering and excitement of growth. Then, inevitably, they will dry tears when the little sprout, once so healthy and lovingly tended, dies and never comes back.

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