SLUGGISH though the Scottish economy may seem, it is in fact working through change as fast as, maybe faster than, any we have seen in the last 200 years. Yet it seemed to go down badly with readers when I said last week that people who just “can’t get a job” were a thing of the past.

For example, Mo Maclean wrote in to say this didn’t square with her experience of Glasgow.

I would not want for a moment to disparage her experience, or doubt that pockets of profound poverty still exist. But they also co-exist with economic features of the opposite kind. The real point of a discussion should not be about whether black is black or white is white, but about how outwardly contradictory tendencies can sit side by side – which in the real world is, of course, a perfectly normal thing.

As I pointed out, Scotland today has more employees in employment, over 2.6 million individuals, than at any time in its entire history. They make up at least 75% of the age-group of 16-64 year olds, and this proportion has been trending upwards, if somewhat erratically, since 2009. Our record in this particular is as good as that of Germany, Europe’s most successful economy. Mo Maclean pointed to the problems of the over-50s, and it is true that, if they do lose their jobs, they find it harder to get another. Yet employment among an even older group, the over-65s, has doubled since the turn of the century. One in 10 of them now ignore the official retirement age and just keep on trucking.

So what about that non-working remainder of 25% in the main group of normal working age? For a start, it contains students. We have more of our young people in higher education than ever before, in order to improve their qualifications for a labour market of which, all the same, they do not yet form part.

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Then there are housewives and househusbands, who stay behind when their spouse goes off to work so as to keep the home fires burning and look after the kids: demanding tasks in themselves, leaving little scope for outside activity.

A third major group is those whose physical or mental condition makes it difficult for them to hold down a full-time job, however much they might want to.

When we strip out the various sub-categories of those not actively seeking work, we are left with 3.6% of the Scottish workforce unemployed – in numbers, just under 100,000 people (and going down, at least for now). During the period between 1945 and 1979 this would have been counted as full employment, near as dammit.

Governments had found that, at any given time, about 3% of the workforce was always out of work because it needed to be: people in the immediate aftermath of losing their jobs, or about to embark on a fresh career or moving from one part of the country to another, and claiming benefits to tide them over.

But they were different people at different times. Many families passed through phases of unemployment as just a normal part of economic life, not any sign of deeper problems. Most would soon find a job again. The number of long-term unemployed was a much smaller hard core, usually with difficulties other than economic ones.

In that light, Scotland does indeed today have full employment. Yet I hesitate to apply the term to the present situation because the kind of economy seen as ideal in those earlier times can no longer be regarded as desirable, or even possible. It was an economy of equilibrium, where an all-wise and all-knowing state, a state wholly centralised in London needless to say, would determine through a planning process what should be produced and who should produce it all over the UK. Scotland, with every other “region”, would enter into an earthly paradise.

That somehow never happened, and today we know economic life is a matter not of equilibrium but of constant and accelerating change. Few people stay in the same jobs for the whole of their lives, which was the norm for earlier generations.

My own profession of journalist, which I chose in the expectation it would last me till retirement, has almost vanished in the form I first knew it. The printers who used to set up the pages in the case-room below my office, and had worked in much the same way since the 15th century, have fared worse and disappeared from the face of the earth: everything is done by computer now.

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I read last week that teenagers spend two-thirds of their day on their iPhones, a device that didn’t even exist when they were born. By 2100 further technological advance will have transformed the life of western societies several times over. It is useless even to speculate how it will all pan out in the real economy.

No doubt the conscious or unconscious realisation of this fact makes the future frightening for many folk. I began this column with quantitative change, but today the most important change is qualitative. Especially as the digital economy is a development as important to the quality of life as the internal combustion engine in the last century or as steam power in the century before that.

Now, as in former times, whenever some striking innovation comes along, people worry about their jobs. They think new and more efficient processes are going to throw them out of work. How will they live instead? There is often no obvious answer. Some hope for the best but in 2019 many more are fearing the worst.

Suddenly we face the gig economy, for example, which we might define as non-traditional functions carried out by digital technology. They are represented in the real world not by time-served craftsmen but by youngsters wobbling on bikes down our streets with huge packs on their backs, carrying who knows what. This is cheap, instant, unskilled service of the kind we also now routinely use if we need a car across town at short notice, or a meal late at night after a tiring day. Steadily all this is being built into the fabric of everyday life.

For example, despite all the political indignation about zero hours contracts, no government has actually yet tried to ban them. This may be because they are useful to so many consumers, and indeed convenient to producers who just want to work like that.

There has never been any regulation because the contracts emerged as spontaneous bargains between those consumers and producers, meeting a real need in a novel way. We are foolish to frown when people solve problems for themselves, before the state has realised what is happening. I bet that in the end society will just adapt to and accommodate these novelties, since banning things that people really want to do is nearly always fruitless.

Ever since the industrial revolution, western societies have managed to create new jobs at least as quickly as old jobs disappear. The higher productivity of innovative technologies freed up resources for investment elsewhere.

In the end it enhanced welfare by generating smarter goods and services. Life began to improve for the masses, as well as the classes, as hard labour for low wages came to an end.

Today’s Scotland follows the same pattern. We have suffered thousands of jobs lost in former heavy industries, yet widespread and durable technological unemployment is so far absent from our labour market. We are not a basket case, but a typical advanced industrial nation.