Automatisation and unemployment in the west


Since the 1990s, the Japanese economy have generally speaking stagnated. Economists have spent years analysing the reasons for the Japanese slow-down, an economy dependent on constant stimulus injections to try to save itself form the effects of a housing bust two decades ago. It was long assumed that the particular culture in Japan was not comsumption-friendly and that the Japanese people were averse towards spending and inclined towards saving – i.e their demand aggregate demand curve was very flat.

Recently, there has been headed warnings that the British economy is at risk of becoming a stagnated economy too, where growth numbers won’t increase despite whatever the British government decides to do. This is treated as an exception to the rule, but the question is whether the West has entered a sort of “GDP plateau”. Human beings do only have 24 hours at their disposal, and there is a limit on how much consumption they can engage in.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Sweden have accumulated impressive growth figures since 2008, despite the financial crisis and the great recession. A large part of this growth is however due to the fact that Sweden is a raw material exporter, mainly of metals and timber, and a lot of these are fuelled by growth in East Asia. The latest trend analysis is pointing out that the West will largely stagnate for the nearest 40 years, as domestic consumption will not increase in economies already so large (GDP/capita numbers could however improve due to a reduction of the fertility rates). The middle classes will continue their sheltered existence, largely protected from the effects of bad environmental and financial policies.

What we will see however and most likely, is an increasing competition on the labour market, not only between human beings, not only between the West and Asia and Africa on the other side, but also between machines and human beings. Even in labour-intensive China, Foxconn has announced they are going to start replacing their assembly line workers with robots, putting further stress on the Chinese economy which already is having the world’s largest net unemployment in terms of the number of people unemployed. It is not only the industrial sector that is affected, even in the service sector, simpler jobs are replaced by machines. As labour-intensive jobs are automatised or outsorced, youths, elderly and those without higher education are thrown into increasingly more unstable employments.

Sweden’s economy can today – despite the economy growing very much for a West European country in these years – not boast of a smaller unemployment than in 2006, the year when the current Alliance government was replacing the social democrats, largely on a programme of reducing unemployment. It cannot be claimed that the 7,1% unemployment today is the fault of the government, since the rest of the West is struggling with similar unemployment figures. It is hard to see what new net employment can be added as the automatisation continues. Of course, there will be a movement towards further liberalisation of the labour market, as well as salary decreases, which we already have seen the unions agree to (something that would have been unprecedented 20 to 30 years ago).

EOS believes that a humane society would look to utilise automatisation to reduce the number of work hours and create more stimulating and fun experiences in terms of meaningful activities. The current system is rather working on a social-darwinian principle of forcing human beings to struggle against one another in a race to the bottom where the entire lower middle class and the working class will lose as a whole. We cannot expect to keep a growth-oriented system, automatise and keep a welfare system. The social reasons alone would suffice for enough motivation to move towards a sustainable civilisation for all human beings.

We believe that sustainability is not a term opposed to human well-being, but a foundation for human well-being. Ultimately, we are humans, and thus the rational and empathic route would be towards establishing systems which would benefit the needs of human beings. Automatisation does not need to mean a rat race to the bottom in the society described in “The Design”, but rather an elevation of human beings. This must however be coupled with an end to any attempts to maximise consumption (either through commercials, planned obsolence or conditional programming of consumers). The current society is ultimately directing itself towards its own destruction, and the destruction of all the passengers who haven’t themselves chosen to be on this ride. Even if they for now enjoy the ride, they will suffer the day the contradictions between unlimited needs for growth and a limited planet are crashing together.


To some extent, automatisation and unemployment can have good side effects of making people aware that a change in the institutional design of our current society is needed. Therefore, while the effects on unemployment herald social tragedies, especially for those workers who are above 50 years of age, the effects can be a refreshing wake-up call calling for an investigation of potential social alternatives. Therefore, automatisation can represent creative destruction which could help drive social development forward.

Technology is also a double-edged sword, and can also be applied by poor communities in order to increase their adaptive skills, their survival rates and their resilience. In societies with increasing unemployment, where social welfare systems are gutted, there is a rationale for communities organising themselves to produce their own needs. Open Source Ecology contains numerous examples of technologies that can be utilised in order to improve the livelihood and quality of life of ordinary people like you and me. EOS does however encourage people to organise in their communities, because it is more environmentally and economically efficient to build together and to network together with other groups than to try to make your own home self-sustaining in all regards. The Umea Biodome Project is aimed at increasing the quality of life and the food security of the people of the Umea region in northern Sweden.

EOS is supporting the UBG project, and we are willing to support your project as well, if you have anything you want to improve on in your community. Ultimately, we are all on the same boat.

Enrique Lescure, Earth Organisation for Sustainability

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: