In the most recent episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the eponymous host ventured into the complex, dizzying, and occasionally dystopian realm of how technological change will affect jobs and work. While it’s welcome that a well-nuanced discussion of automation is reaching Oliver’s mainstream millions, the limited narratives are obsolete and in need of a major reboot.
Oliver begins the segment with children answering the familiar question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This idea evolves over the next 20 minutes to “What five things do you want to be when you grow up?” because careers will increasingly lack permanence and long-term reliability. Finally, Oliver amusingly cajoles children into reciting the bleak vision frequently laid out by mainstream economic futurists: “I want to do a series of non-routine tasks that require social intelligence, complex critical thinking, and creative problem-solving.”
It may be darkly entertaining to see the wild-eyed ambition drained out of children as they recite neoliberal jargon, but that doesn’t actually get at the sources of the problem: workers will have little if any say in how their lives will be forced to change by automation and that automation in the service of unchecked demand and growth will have severe environmental consequences.
Fundamentally, the claim that a jobless future is looming over workers relies on an often implicit passive voice, in the vein of “robots will take our jobs.” However, machines—for the time being, anyway—have no agency. Robots aren’t filling out applications for your job. They’re not going to escort you out of the building and take your place.
In the less-sexy-than-Terminator-2 version of reality that we occupy, a better way of framing the realities of technological change is “your boss has incentives to invest in new technologies that may have negative effects on your hours or wages.” You cannot talk about automation without confronting the power structures that determine who the “winners” and “losers” are in the transforming economy.
Oliver pays lip service to “reskilling,” but that isn’t actually a solution to systematically disempowered workers. Oliver cites a Brookings Institution report that also does not get at the systemic problem with recommendations as inoffensive to the status quo as “universal career counseling.” But there are a host of policy proposals that Oliver does not mention that could—to different degrees—empower workers and communities. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, recently introduced a bill that would include worker voices on corporate boards, where currently there are few considerations beyond shareholder returns. Going a step further, the Labour party in the United Kingdom has proposed creating inclusive ownership funds that would gradually transfer a small portion of corporate shares to a workers’ fund, which would not only give workers a decision-making role as part-owners, but financial dividends as well.
Worker empowerment, however, is not enough. In the context of the unfathomable ruin that humanity faces due to inaction on climate change, it’s odd that few reports on automation consider the effects of new technology on environmental extraction. Oliver lays out a typical narrative meant to alleviate working-class concerns as follows: automation may destroy some jobs, but by making businesses more productive, that competition will lower prices and raise demand, which will in turn lead to more jobs. Oliver cites the example of ATMs, which freed up bank tellers to focus on other tasks, which led to banks opening more branches and hiring more bank tellers.
However, given capitalism’s voracious devouring of the environment, this logic should not put workers at ease. At one point Oliver suggests that automating the logging industry will save workers’ lives. No one can rightfully disagree with safer working conditions, but it’s difficult to rejoice in making it cheaper to clear-cut forests when the resulting lower prices and higher productivity come at such a high cost to environmental sustainability—a cost almost never mentioned in those landmark reports that enjoin politicians, business leaders and workers to embrace automation as the inevitable march of progress. It’s crucial that those that insist on touting these new technologies as “engines of growth” be made to explain how their vision for growth will avoid trespassing beyond ecological limits.
Oliver’s primary focus is not incorrect—that the Trump administration, despite its promises, is continuing to fail workers—but that analysis is simply not enough. At the core of the automation dilemma are old, familiar issues: the systemic disempowerment of workers and the profit-driven ruin of the environment. Most of President Trump’s liberal opponents, including Oliver, lack a systemic framework capable of confronting the looming crisis because, in many ways, the looming crisis is the current crisis.