OPINION: Sometimes the future arrives devastatingly and without warning.
In Anne Salmond’s Between Worlds, there’s a striking description of the arrival of the Endeavour at Tuuranga-nui (Poverty Bay). It is October 1769, and “from the horizon between night and day, sea and sky”, ready or not, came the future.
What did they make of it, those people on the beach as James Cook’s white-sailed ship materialised into view?
They did not know it yet, but more ships would follow. And more. And the people on them would change their lives beyond recognition.
Sometimes the future arrives devastatingly and without warning, and sometimes it barely arrives at all.
There have been periods in human history of such sameness, of so few material advances in health, education, science, labour conditions, and social and political structures, that outside the rarefied machinations of throne rooms, much of the human race has been in a kind of stasis.
So, in 2017, how is our future arriving?
It does seem probable that the changes approaching us are very big and coming very fast: environmental pressures; population pressures; climate change, and its casualties and refugees; automation, and the dismantling of jobs and labour-market structures that have existed throughout our lives; education, and the rapidly approaching obsolescence of some of its most central assumptions; what we eat and where it comes from; what we drink and where it comes from; the consequences of exclusion and disparity; the way we communicate; and on and on and on.
Consider this: in 2016, the NZ Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) predicted that almost half of the jobs we currently do are at “high risk” of disappearing in the next twenty years.
In Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford gave us an example of why. He compared Google, who in 2012 “generated a profit of nearly $14 billion while employing fewer than 38,000 people”, with General Motors, who at their height, in 1979, “had nearly 840,000 workers but earned only about $11 billion” (and those figures are adjusted for inflation).
Thirty eight thousand workers versus 840,000. The future versus history.
Article 23.1 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment… and to protection against unemployment.”
That was adopted in 1948. In the decades ahead, automation may render it a utopian ideal.
So, what do we do?
And how do we ask that question outside the frame of tribal politics, where party loyalty can cloud the assessment of merit, and where the men and women who shape our country are inevitably compelled to the short term by having to reapply for their own jobs every three years?
“Optimism”, Noam Chomsky told us, “is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”
My children are teenagers now. I rather hope that in twenty years time they, and their cousins and friends and schoolmates, will have children themselves (if they want them, of course – no pressure, kids!)
What do we want for them?
How are we taking responsibility for making it?
If we are standing on the beach, and we actually know something very big is coming over the horizon, how are we planning to meet it?
– Sunday Star Times