I have seen the future & it frightens me

Posted on September 23, 2017


I RECENTLY saw again the future of retail – and it works. At the same time, it frightens me. The same applies to many of the observed developments, especially in the service industries, along with the decline in trade union membership across the world.

These issues came starkly into focus during more than a month spent in Britain after a two-year absence. While Britain – and London in particular – may not be at the cutting edge of retail, it is a good guide to where countries such as South Africa are heading.

The spread of self-service is most evident, even after only two years. The casual visitor to the UK may find such a shopping experience so slick, so “first world”, for all the anomalies that exist.

The same certainly applies in countries such as Germany and the United States, let alone Japan, everywhere that retailing has become more automated and efficient. However, in the process there are clear indications of the gloomy prospects ahead. Where, for example, have all the workers gone?

Take one central London store, where I had previously noted attentive staff guiding customers in the use of then recently introduced self-service check outs. The only human presence this month, apart from a few customers, was a man near the door wearing a security company uniform.

But everywhere were the dark, bulbous eyes of 360 degree cameras in what has become perhaps the most watched city on earth.

It was a matter of walking down wide, well-stocked aisles, selecting purchases, and then having bar codes read and payments made at automated check-outs, watched by those bulbous eyes in the ceiling. The same applies in the smaller stores of supermarket chains.

In large suburban stores, self-service checkouts have also proliferated, but humans still staff other checkouts while a generational factor seems in play. Older men and women, possibly technophobic or perhaps supporting job retention, queue at the human staffed checkouts, while the expanded self-service machines tend to attract younger customers.

And, as the trade union movement confirms, many of the workers who remain in this sector now have to deal with zero hours contracts. This means not knowing from week to week, or even day to day, how often they will be called in or for how long to work and be paid.

It is this, along with the growth in “self-employment” as well as widespread part-time work that enables the British government to use a statistical sleight of hand to claim that unemployment is now lower than at any time since 1975, at 4.5%. It is – but only on paper.

Here is a case of massaging the definition to achieve a distorted result, a widespread practice among governments the world over. In South Africa, for example, only a couple of paid hours a week qualifies a worker as employed.

Our reality, especially taking account of the gross under-employment and under payment, is one of massive joblessness and huge disparities in wealth and income. And the self-service future into which we are all being dragged is upon us: the first successful pilot of such supermarket checkouts has been carried out. The inexorable drive has begun in a society where casual hiring – effectively zero hours – is already a way of life for many.

I am also not reacting purely on my own anecdotal evidence. Careful checking reveals that my conclusions are backed up by various, often meticulous, surveys.

Manufacturing – the much-quoted auto industry being a classic example – was the first to feel the impact of technology. According to official statistics, the US alone lost 5 million factory jobs over the past 17 years, all but 12% to automation.

Today the rate of job losses in manufacturing continues at a slower rate, but has been more than made up for in the retail and services sector. Figures from the US Bureau of Statistics, for example, reveal that departmental stores in that country alone shed 26 800 jobs in the year to April. When all retail stores are taken into account, there are now 85 700 fewer jobs.

The technology replacing human labour is also evolving at a rapid rate. However, even at the present level of development, it is estimated that 30% of tasks involving 60% of current jobs done by people can – and may soon – be automated. The Bank of England has estimated that 15 million service jobs in Britain are now threatened.

This comes at a time when trade unions, the only organised protection of labour, have been weakened almost everywhere. In Turkey, there has been a calamitous decline, with only 3% of private sector workers unionised.

Given these facts, we should all be worried and ignore the blathering of the likes of US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who maintains that there will be nothing to worry about for “50 to 100 years”.

The future into which we are all being dragged, is upon us. If we do not, at the very least, take steps to make governments manage or regulate what already faces us, the consequences will be dire.