There is a haunting issue hanging over our civilization. We have talked about it several times over the years. I first saw the problem expressed by a Chinese businessman and it was about how things were changing in China, how a new economic reality was emerging. I was aware of the issue. I watched it happen.
I have been fortunate enough to have visited the People’s Republic of China, not once but twice.
The first time was just a couple of years after Tiananmen Square and, more recently, just a few years ago.
China, like the rest of the world, has fundamentally changed. There has been an exit from the countryside and an influx of people into the cities. Well, welcome to the world. Centralization is the way of the present, and the future, and you do not have to go to China to see that. It is emerging around the world.
It is driven by economics. I first saw it in France 30 years ago. Vanishing quickly were small farms and emerging were giant mechanized enterprises. In the shadow of Beaumont Hamel the fields were being worked, not by scores of farmers but by giant mechanised harvesters. If it were Newfoundland we would be talking about factory freezer trawlers. It is the way things work these days. The work is being done by fewer people. In Newfoundland, within my lifetime, the fishery employed whole families of people indoors and outdoors. It was very much a labour-oriented enterprise. It was the day of the small boat fishermen – romanced in story and song where fish had been caught and processed the same way for hundreds of years.
That is gone now. The fishery is still a lucrative business and the dollar value of fish landed is high but it doesn’t nearly employ the people it once did. It never will. Look at your service stations. Who pumps your gas these days? Look at your giant stores and supermarkets. Technology often checks you in. That also is driven by economics. We might wish it were not so but it is the new reality. The good old days are gone.
My generation landed cod from traps and small inshore boats. There was salt bulk fish to be “made.” There was fish to be dried and turned on flakes. It was an enterprise that involved the whole family. There was fresh fish to be processed on production lines in plants and quick frozen and shipped off to markets around the world. We became the heart and sole of the fish sticks business. It was a busy time with lots of work to be done.
Fast forward now to the Chinese businessman I mentioned. His question is what happens to all the people replaced by technology or made redundant by new methods of doing things? Who pays for what they do? How do they get by? There has been much talk about “guaranteed incomes” for all people. It is a noble idea but the question screaming out for an answer is – Who pays for that? How do all these people in the new reality get by?
I tell you humbly and honestly that I don’t know the answer. I do know that the demand for a decent living is real and troubling. I also know that around the world it is more than a request. It is a demand and it is the great unanswered question of our modern time.