The ringing of the bells of change.
The numbers are striking enough. Circulation down from 428,000 at its peak to a current 28,000. No wonder that the broadsheet version of the Independent is being withdrawn. Figures at other newspapers tell much the same story. In 2000 the circulation of the Telegraph was around 1 million copies. Now it is less than 500,000. The Times sold more than 700,000. Now the figure is about the 400,000 mark. The Guardian has also dropped from around 400,000 to below 200,000.
There is no doubt where many of the readers have gone. Look at the readership of the electronic copies of the same newspapers and you will find corresponding increases. In 2007 the electronic circulation of each of the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent itself was below 1 million. Now the corresponding figures are in excess of 7.8 million, 4 million and 2.8 million respectively. Doesn't it matter, then? Is this simply a change in delivery mechanism for the same product? Unfortunately, yes, it does matter. It matters because the profits made by newspapers from electronic copies are much smaller than the profits made from the print editions. That means that the current trend results in less money being pushed about the newspaper industry; less pay for the journalists; less money for investigations; less £20 notes to fill the brown envelopes for secret information. When there is less money coming into an industry, everyone whose income is based on that industry loses.
The trouble is that the newspaper industry is not alone. Have you second-hand goods to sell? Forget the local auction house or the junk dealer and put them on eBay. That may deliver you a keener price but it also puts a lot of middlemen out of business. Houses too can now be bought and sold over the Internet. What does that do to the earnings of estate agents? Buy your groceries at the supermarket? Use the quick automatic till. Soon there will be fewer supermarket tellers. You could do even better than that by ordering goods online and having them delivered. That means jobs in the shops being replaced by jobs in the warehouses - until, of course, the robots come along and put the packers out of business.
Gradually and remorselessly the middlemen are being pushed out of our economy by machines, and in the end that must leave less for everyone to do. Each time that you order on the internet or speak to an automatic machine over the telephone, there was once an individual who would previously have taken your order or answered your call in return for his or her livelihood. It is true that up to now the employment figures have been fairly healthy, but you cannot help wondering if that is the last hurrah before a long-term downward trend takes hold. It isn't just that humans are unnecessary but also that the over-supply of bright young people is devaluing their work. Try selling a newspaper article. Once upon a time a nice little fee would have arrived but nowadays you have to compete with those who provide their product free in the hope of publicity or experience. Apply for work at a prestigious institution. Often you will be told that they will take you on as an unpaid intern and the more ruthless of them will then replace you with another unpaid intern when your internship comes to an end. Aha, we give you good experience, they say. What they really mean is that they are using your anxiety to find a good job to extract work from you without paying for it.
So how will this play out? Much the same question was asked at the time of the Industrial Revolution, and then people moved from the countryside to became the operators of the new machinery. Again much the same question was asked at the time of the Scottish clearances; then people moved into the wide open spaces of the colonies. Those are the valves through which the pressure escaped. Where will it go this time?
It is hard to answer that. Will there be more machine operators? No, the computers do that better than people. Will there be more planners? No again. Once computer programs have been set up right, planning should become easy. Will people go into the arts, write more books, create more films? Perhaps they will in the end but if you go into any bookshop nowadays it is noticeable that the range of authors is almost always the same. Is that a sign that the large modern booksellers are over-dominating the market or is it just part of a more general rule? A few talented people backed by machines will always destroy those who would previously have been able to hang in for a modest living.
This time there are no colonies into which to expand. Even the military has been cut back so we cannot take the traditional route of mounting an invasion of France. What is left, then? Could capitalism be dying because it is demand-led and modern systems are now swamping that demand with too much supply? Will demand come through in a different form in the way that it did in the last part of the eighteenth century? Perhaps rich pensioners will bail out the economy with exorbitant demands. Or will many of the things which we are now mechanising need to be re-humanised? The French certainly seem to think so judging from the number of individuals who man their motorway ticket booths. Is it possible that for once they are right (although the solution has a suspiciously old fashioned feel about it)? Maybe the collapse of the Schengen agreement will turn out to save Europe's employment figures as more and more people find rewarding work in the stamping of border control documents.
Who knows? These questions are asked from time to time and in the end there usually seems to be an answer. The Luddites turned out to be wrong in the eighteenth century and maybe the doomsayers are wrong now. Perhaps it is in the nature of such questions that one does not know the answer until it emerges. One thing, however, is clear. The rate of change is likely to increase and that means that our young people must be given the wherewithal to cope with changing circumstances. Rather than just training them in particular skills we must give them the capacity to adapt. Flexibility is all, just as it was when the Victorians expected their administrators to deal with any contingency which arose in a far-flung dominion without coming back for orders. How do you encourage that sort of flexibility? By stretching their minds. Does that mean putting classics and maths at the centre of the educational system and excluding "vocational" subjects? Probably not, but it does mean a focus on subjects which are difficult to learn so that the mind gets used to dealing with new concepts. Should we then have an education system which focuses on difficult subject rather than on those at which everyone can excel? Of course we should. Otherwise we risk increasing the division between those who have done difficult things and can adapt and those who have done soft ones and who cannot.
The best way of dealing with social changes is to prepare for them and in this case there is little we can do except to see that our young people are made as flexible as they can be. That doesn't sound very easy. Is there another course? Yes, of course there is. You can put your head in the sand and not listen to the bells of change as they ring out their tune. It will seem comfortable for a bit but still remember, they toll for thee.