In Whakatū, unemployment arrived suddenly on October 10th, 1986. That was the day the freezing works closed, putting 2160 people out of work. The financial strife was real; families suddenly struggled to pay rent and buy groceries. Unemployment benefits and redundancy payments helped a little, but the problems created by sudden unemployment went far beyond lost income.
Working at the freezing works had given people a sense of purpose, structure, and community. There had been sports days, picnics, hāngis, and after work drinks with mates. Researchers found that workers keenly missed the whanaungatanga (kinship) that they had enjoyed there. Never again, people recounted, would they lead up to Christmas by singing carols in full voice with hundreds of their workmates as they worked the production line.
In the eight years following the closure, a team of researchers from the University of Otago found that there was double the risk of serious self-harm for those made redundant compared with workers at a nearby freezing works that did not close. Older Māori men were noted as particularly vulnerable to depression. These results are mirrored in overseas research, including a study in Germany that found that people never got back to the level of life satisfaction they had before unemployment—even after being re-employed. Another study found that long periods of unemployment can be harder to recover from emotionally than the death of a spouse.
Thirty-three years later, headline after headline suggests we might be heading for sudden unemployment, much like in Whakatū, but at a vastly larger scale. “Robots threaten millions of jobs,” “Al- most half of NZ jobs at risk of automation—will you lose yours?” and “Invasion of the robot workers.” One study found that 46% of New Zealand jobs were at high risk of automation by 2035.
The consequences of massive unemployment would be devas- tating to individuals, families, and communities. Any threat like this demands our attention. Yet it is easy to feel hopeless when it comes to facing—let alone influencing—what may be coming.
To get a grip on it we need to ask two related questions. First, are these headlines and studies giving us a clear and accurate picture? And second, is it possible for us to shape our future, and avoid the devastating consequences that we saw in Whakatū repeating on a nationwide scale?