Right before my eyes, I saw my first job, taken by a machine. Visiting a local cinema to see the much-lauded film ‘La La Land’, I was not greeted by a fellow human. I was greeted by a black box with a screen entitled “Ticket Sales”. Only five year ago, I started my working life selling tickets at another local cinema. Were I a nervous teenager entering the workforce today, I would not have been so lucky.
I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been. The Committee for the Economic Development of Australia estimates that up to 40% of Australian jobs could be replaced by technology by 2030. With such a grave threat to Australian jobs, it beggars belief that our politicians barely pay it lip service.
It is not only automation our politicians are avoiding talking about, but anything vaguely futuristic. Across the Western world, we are witnessing an enraged backlash against modernity. In the face of a rapidly changing global economy, politicians and their ageing electorates are harking back to a mythical golden age. Nostalgia is now the most valuable political currency, being cynically exploited by political animals of all stripes.
Our public representatives are living in La La Land – a film which traffics in indulgent nostalgia, where fulfilment can be found in the worship of past greats, and where modernity is an annoyance to be escaped from. From Canberra to Hollywood, those responsible for our collective future are looking backwards with rose-tinted glasses.
If one wanted evidence that Australia’s political class are clinging to yesteryear, they need only have observed Scott Morrison brandishing a lump of coal in Parliament. Scott Morrison rallied on behalf of coal miners in Labor electorates, in a blatant emulation of Donald Trump’s appeals to unemployed coal miners in formerly Democratic strongholds. The message was clear – the Coalition will make coal great again.
Trying to reclaim the glory of a once-thriving industry may cynically harvest the votes of those previously employed in the sector, but coal will not power the industries of the future. Victoria’s Hazelwood power station will shut in March, due to the economic unviability of coal production in the green global economy of tomorrow.
The US provides a stark example of where the politics of nostalgia may lead us. Trump’s vow to “Make America Great Again” excited white voters over the age of 45, for whom yesteryear meant stable employment and unchallenged social status. Trump fared far worse with younger voters and people of colour, who were either born into our modern travails, or for whom yesteryear was not the hallowed golden age Trump pretends it was.
The problem with Trump’s utopic repackaging of the past, like Morrison’s, is that it fits tomorrow’s requirements like a square peg in a round hole. His proposed tariffs on imports to revive US manufacturing will likely raise the cost of living, damage import reliant sectors, and may even trigger a global recession through a trade war with China. Meanwhile, automation will swallow many of the jobs Trump does manage to salvage, whilst unhalted climate change will decimate valuable natural resources and lower our quality of life.
Young people are rarely afforded the comfortable privilege of nostalgia. We have not lived long enough to have the luxury of yearning for a simpler time. We have only the complexities of the present.
It is no surprise that few millennials voted for Trump, and most are dissatisfied with Turnbull’s inert leadership. Deloitte’s 2017 Millennial Survey reveals that less than one in ten young Australians think they will be more financially secure than their parents. A barely penetrable job market, only made worse by rising housing costs, is weighing heavily on our optimism for the future.
We cannot revert back to the past. Cinemas will not rehire ticket salesmen when machines can perform the same task, more efficiently, for less money. The challenge for our leaders is to have the courage to address such emergent economic issues, whilst sparking excitement in a disenchanted electorate.
The apparent attractiveness of the twentieth century is a direct product of the failure of progressive voices to craft an appealing narrative about the future. The latest incarnation of modernity has become too entangled with the political agenda of neoliberalism, which has given us all iPhones but failed to ensure fair distribution of wealth. We can, and must, have both.
To break away from this regressive political quagmire requires our leaders to imagine what a good life will look like in 2030 and beyond, to articulate that vision in an inclusive way and to bring it about through intelligent public policy. Only then will we make our future great again.