Robots in the workplace boost careers of populist politicians like Trump, says author Gwynne Dyer

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      According to Statistics Canada, the provincial unemployment rate is near a 40-year low.

      But the rosy job numbers don’t impress international-affairs columnist Gwynne Dyer, author of Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).

      “Almost anything counts as a job,” Dyer said during a well-attended March 6 lecture in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s. “We count two hours a week working for Uber as the equivalent of 40 hours a week on an assembly line at $25 an hour. They’re both jobs.”

      Furthermore, he insisted that the stats only reflect people who are looking for work. They don’t account for those who’ve given up on finding a job.

      “The unemployment figures in every major country are massaged until they’re sore in every joint,” Dyer added. “I mean, it is in the government’s interest to have a low unemployment rate and they can arrange it to look low.”

      To support his argument, Dyer cited the research of Nicholas Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute. He retained a research firm to track how many people were working in the previous week and found far higher rates of joblessness than the official numbers from the U.S. government indicated.

      According to this data, 17.5 percent of American men between 24 and 55 were unemployed in 2016.

      Dyer’s book focuses on how automation is eliminating jobs in western industrialized countries on a wide scale.

      He links this with the rise of populist politics, noting that these unemployed and underemployed Americans played a crucial role in electing Donald Trump as U.S. president.

      Populists are also thriving in many other countries and at his lecture, Dyer provided a lengthy list. It included Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Mihály Orbán.

      Dyer also described populism as a "tactic", saying it can be employed by those on the right or the left.

      And he said that it's voters who've been downsized in workplaces who are supporting demagogues as an outlet for their anger.

      Dyer acknowledged that in the 1990s, there was a great deal of controversy about U.S. corporations hiring cheaper workers abroad.

      According to him, that led to about two million U.S. workers losing their jobs—far fewer than the impact of automation on the workforce.

      He said that this “offshoring” of the 1990s has virtually ceased as CEOs realize that they can save even more money by replacing humans with machines.

      “In the first decade of this century, six million more American manufacturing jobs disappeared and almost none of them went abroad,” he said. “They just vanished in place. The individuals who held them either became fully unemployed or cascaded down from the $25 [an hour] onto the minimum-wage jobs.”

      The first jobs to disappear due to automation were on assembly lines in American rust-belt states, which supported Trump in 2016.

      Now, Dyer said, it’s spreading to the retail sector, with about a million jobs vanishing each year in western countries. He blamed online shopping as one factor. And he predicted that the next group of workers to be clobbered will be those who drive for a living.

      That’s because the owners of taxi fleets, trucking firms, and bus companies will be eager to buy self-driving vehicles once they’re safe enough to be on the roads.

      “Four-and-a-half million jobs in the United States and a half-million in Canada [will be] gone in 10 years, maybe less,” Dyer declared.

      He said others in the firing line will be white-collar and blue-collar workers engaged in repetitive tasks, suggesting tens of millions will find themselves replaced by machines in the coming years.

      And he dismissed claims that automation can create more jobs in the long run.

      “The ratio is about three jobs destroyed for every one created,” Dyer said. “And the ones created, very often, will pay less and have lower requirements in terms of skills than the ones that were destroyed.”