Craftsmanship and Full Employment

There seems to be a growing unease about the digital economy and its implications for employment.  The Bahá’í Writings extol craftsmanship. Could craftsmanship be one small part of the solution to the problem of mass unemployment?

Economies may be very slowly recovering from the Great Recession but unemployment stubbornly refuses to fall. In the US, 12 million people are registered unemployed, a quarter of them for more than a year.  In Spain, the unemployment rate now exceeds 27% of the workforce, and is much higher for younger people. There is good reason to think that things will get worse.

In Race Against The Machine, Brynjolfsson and McAfee showed how automation and robots are eliminating jobs. From the macro perspective, it’s a process of creative destruction that is delivering significant benefits.  We need technological advances to solve many of mankind’s most pressing problems – poverty, hunger, water, climate change, population. But for many people, and across almost every occupation, it feels like a race against the machine – and the machine is winning.  Even in low wage China, the iPhone manufacturer Foxconn recently announced an investment in one million robots to replace much of its workforce.

Even worse, it’s a race that’s really only just started: it’s estimated that only 1% of all the things that will be one day be connected are currently connected. Brynjolfsson and McAfee made a convincing case that there’s a third industrial revolution under way, and, just like the steam engine and electricity before it, the computer is rapidly and fundamentally restructuring our economies and our work.

As ever, some people are winning – and big time.  Brynjolfsson and McAfee quote a study finding that over 100% of all the wealth increase in America between 1983 and 2009 accrued to the top 20% of households.  The other four-fifths of the population saw a net decrease in wealth over that 25 year period.

In a recent TED talk, Brynjolfsson made the case for the optimists, though he readily conceded that ‘we’re not doing a great job of coping with the social implications’ of this revolution.

For the poorly educated and lower income groups especially, the outlook verges on tragic. Mass unemployment looks set to remain for the foreseeable future. Thinking beyond the narrow confines of economic efficiency, continuing mass unemployment is a human tragedy, a complete waste of human potential, a blight upon the wellbeing of individuals and families.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee do offer a prescription. But their focus is on the US, not on global solutions. And their approach is focussed on making the US more competitive, which effectively just shifts the unemployment downsides elsewhere.

Against this bleak backdrop, we might reflect on the very high station of craftsmanship from the Bahá’í perspective:

“Arts, sciences and all crafts are counted as worship. The man who makes a piece of note-paper to the best of his ability, conscientiously, concentrating all his forces on perfecting it, is giving praise to God. Briefly, all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity.”

“It behoveth the craftsmen of the world at each moment to offer a thousand tokens of gratitude… [and] to exert their highest endeavour and diligently pursue their professions so that their efforts may produce that which will manifest the greatest beauty and perfection before the eyes of all men.”

“The source of crafts, sciences and arts is the power of reflection. Make ye every effort that out of this ideal mine there may gleam forth such pearls of wisdom and utterance as will promote the well-being and harmony of all the kindreds of the earth.”

There’s a lot to unpack here (way beyond the scope of this post) but we might note immediately that the concept of craftsmanship applies to every occupation. It’s not the case that potters are good, computer engineers are bad. There is a craft of software engineering. Craftsmanship in this sense is more of an ideal to which we can all aspire.

But still, I can’t help wondering if, as consumers, we came to value craftsmanship more highly – outside of the digital economy – then we would surely create many new jobs for artisan bakers, dressmakers, portrait artists, rug weavers, potters, interior designers, tailors, wood sculptors, jewellers and furniture makers – to name the more obvious possibilities.

It’s a long way from a complete or even immediate solution but perhaps a renewal of craftsmanship can play some part in re-creating secure and creative professions for those least able to participate in the digital economy, who are currently the losers in the race against the machine.

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