The Sunday Magazine

Populist wave is the warning sign we need: Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer joined Michael Enright to discuss the connection between automation, joblessness and populism, which is the subject of his new book Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)
Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters during a rally at Afonso Pena airport in Curitiba, Brazil (Heuler Andrey/AFP/Getty Images)

Xenophobic nationalism is gaining momentum in Europe.

Job markets are cratering in much of the west due to automation.

Donald Trump is butting heads with Xi Jinping and myriad other world leaders.

It appears to be a volatile time. But author and international affairs commentator Gwynne Dyer says he's not too worried.

Many of our current problems, he says, are more manageable than unrealized threats of the recent past.

"I spent 20 years predicting nuclear war and then I was there in time to watch the old Soviet Union quietly, peacefully, collapse," Dyer told Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition.  

What's critical, Dyer said, is that political leaders realize western societies are in a state of intense flux and now is the time to start laying the groundwork for how our societies and economies will work in the future.
Gwynne Dyer's new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work). (submitted by Gwynne Dyer)

He says the populist wave which has hit many countries around the globe is a warning signal.

"Trump's a canary in the coal mine, [a] giant orange canary."

Same with the likes of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Viktor Orban in Hungary.

The sudden success of populist leaders is the result of the anger of a growing portion of society that finds itself unemployed or underemployed, with wages that have stagnated for decades.

Dyer says populist movements always thrive when social frustration runs high.

"A lot of people are angry," Dyer said. "They've been left behind. Unemployment levels are far higher everywhere than we admit publicly."

He says the official US unemployment rate, currently around four per cent, is misleading.

He says he believes it's more like 15-17 per cent.

"If you work one hour within two weeks you are counted as employed, you know. And they don't count, at all, people who aren't looking for jobs."

He says governments promote selective statistics to burnish their own image.

Dyer says the same happens here.

"I don't think we're at 15 or 17 per cent in Canada, but I'm willing to bet we're at 10."

Dyer says over the past four decades two factors have deeply altered western economies, to the great benefit of the rich and the detriment of everyone else: neoliberalism and automation.

Neoliberal policies, he says, shifted focus away from the goal of full employment in favour reducing inflation.

And automation is killing jobs so quickly, Dyer says, it's causing a socio-economic shift as significant as the Industrial Revolution.

"We have to find new roles for ourselves and ways of making sure everybody's got the money they need and can keep the wheels turning. That's a transition that's going to take at least a generation, probably two or three."

Dyer says the idea of a universal basic income (UBI), paid to all citizens of a country, whether working or not, is a policy idea that should be seriously considered.

Either way, he says, it will be a painful transition, but one that needs immediate attention at the risk of greater social unrest.

And it's not the unrest that scares Dyer most — it's that the unrest distracts us even more from humanity's greatest current threat: global warming.

"Climate change is the big crowbar that's going to change things," he said.

He says we need to deal with growing inequality immediately if we ever hope to prepare ourselves for climate change.

Click "listen" above to hear the interview.