Fearing and loathing that toad, Work

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Work is a worry, but most of us have to do it, and many of us have different attitudes towards it. Poet Philip Larkin, for example, spent 30 years as a successful librarian in Hull, but famously wrote a rebellious poem called 'Toads' in which he asks plaintively: 'Why should I let/the toad work/Squat on my life?'

Larkin toadHe wants to use his wits to drive 'the brute' off, while in another line he refers to work as a 'sickening poison'.

Best-selling author Carlo Rovelli declares that in his radical youth the problem was how to avoid work. But unreconstructed Puritans feel compelled to work: they know that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as the lilies of the field, which neither toil nor spin, but this consideration is irrelevant to them, and such people are unhappy when idle. They can relax, but only up to a point, and only for a relatively short time, for they know they have to earn their place in the world.

Such people are now often regarded as strange specimens, and as anachronisms in that they subscribe to the quaint old belief that hard work will almost undoubtedly lead to all sorts of success.

Now such people, and they are not the only ones, are worried because work is becoming scarce, is perhaps on its way to becoming non-existent, for some estimates suggest that robots will have taken 800 million jobs by 2030.

Throughout March, the BBC gave much of its attention to this prospect in two series, entitled The Future of Work, and Reinventing the 9 to 5. In an advertisement for the former programme, a bemused man talks to an attractive female robot, who informs him that she has no job, but invests wisely, and is more intelligent than he is. She adds that 'where he is in five years' time' is largely up to him, an idea that many might consider inaccurate.

Automation and artificial intelligence are two looming fears at present. But we humans have always been worried about technology. My father tried to reassure me during the teenage years I spent in the shadow of The Bomb, when I passed sleepless nights fearing the world was about to end. 'People felt the same about the longbow and gunpowder,' he said, more than once.

 

"Decisions to automate are contingent on many factors that have little connection with technology, and the fact is that many jobs are bundles of tasks, some of which are easily automated, and some not."

 

In earlier times, the end of the world was always a fear, but there were others as well. In years BC, Plato thought that the skill of writing would ruin the capacity to memorise, and would generally weaken the faculties. In the 16th century it was thought that the proliferation of books would render people barbarous and confused. And then came steam power, and its consequences.

But the advancement of technology and the threat to work has meant different things to different people. The Luddites of the early 19th century were mainly weavers who went around smashing machinery that threatened their livelihood, for such machines could be operated by cheap, unskilled labour.

A century later, many saddlers whose way of work seemed to be at an end because of the rise of the motor car, managed to adapt, turning their skills to the making of items such as footballs, luggage and handbags. And creative spirits now had the time in which to paint, compose, sculpt, or write, even if money was always rather scarce. Even now, creative spirits are ill-advised to give up the day job, if it still exists.

But British journalist John Naughton, writing in The Observer, tells us, very reassuringly, that we need to get over the idea that technology is the only force that drives history. Decisions to automate, he argues, are contingent on many factors that have little connection with technology, and the fact is that many jobs are bundles of tasks, some of which are easily automated, and some not.

There is also a wide variation in jobs that are 'automatable'. An OECD report gives the example that while 33 per cent of jobs in Slovakia are under threat, only six per cent of jobs in Norway are thought to be in this category.

So, he says, technology is not the only force that shapes our destinies, an idea I need to remind myself of whenever I start worrying about the future of my children and grandchildren.

 

 

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Philip Larkin, work, automation, robots, technology


 

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Existing comments

Many people find their sense of who they are from their work. It's often the way to security and their place in the world. The reference to Philip Larkin is interesting. I can imagine no better occupation for a poet than being a librarian. But then I'm no Philip Larkin, either in talent or temperament, even as I love poetry. Therefore, I think our diversity is the key to our survival in terms of the working life.
Pam | 04 May 2018


I fear your fear is well placed Gillian. I awoke this morning and the first email was a New York Times article about Amazon pursuing technology to allow us to order clothes online that fit every time... and then yours... when the owners of these technology companies are talking about providing a living wage because of where it will all end up.....
Patrick | 07 May 2018


Patrick, beware of "clothes online that fit every time." I once ordered a shirt through one such and when it came it did indeed fit - skin tight fit, no room to move at all! I think I prefer my friendly local clothing store.
Janet | 07 May 2018


i reckon what will really hasten the demise of work as we know it is our growing distaste for genuinely relating to other people.
Margaret | 07 May 2018


Thanks for another thought provoking article Gillian. It is interesting to ponder our evolutionary attitudes and reactions to the ever changing terms of work. I particularly note a fairly consistent thread in that we believe our work defines who we are, which I believe it really shouldn’t, yet I still get caught up in this trap myself by asking others what they do in trying to form an opinion about them, though don’t like it when it’s done to me, so am often consciously devious about what I do to avoid this perception of myself by others.
John Whitehead | 08 May 2018


Thanks for pointing out that people have always felt threatened by change it gives some perspective though perhaps it does ease the fear a lot. People have always been and inventive lot let's hope new and interesting kinds of work keep emerging.
Stephen Hicks | 11 May 2018


I may wander off topic - no concerns re AI/Robots for me - except peripherally observing - but, Gillian, your topic has sent me off into reminiscence (and I'm only a few years your junior). From chores and responsibilities around the house and yard - the first properly paid work as at the petrol bowser of the local Dux Motors - filling the tanks, checking the oil - and the air pressure of the tyres. Then at university the long vacations were perfect for factory work and later hotel cleaning, packing assembly-line orders for newsagents - week-end gardening jobs and so forth - chemical plant shut-downs and crane manufacturers gave me money for my first overseas travel - a month around both islands of NZ. After five years of teaching - more travel - and bar work in London. Back in Australia after some futile attempts to be included in a willow tree river clearance project - came gallup poll work, book-selling and gherkin-packing. Then teaching again - here and abroad till retirement. Never driven by the desire to be rich, to own negatively-geared investment properties - a believer that what comes around (my earnings) goes round - that I'm a uniter not a divider. That's my identity.
Jim KABLE | 17 May 2018


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