Who among us has not cursed their job?
Regardless, few of us would like to lose it. It remains the ultimate luxury to be able, as the country song says, to tell your boss to “take this job and shove it.”
But soon most jobs may tell us to shove it. Before then, we might be well advised to think through what we want to do about it.
We work for many reasons, principally to provide a livelihood for ourselves and our families. But work means more to us than money. Our jobs define who we are. Historically, serfs worked for lords. As cities developed and mercantilism displaced feudalism, guilds decided who to admit to their trade, using lengthy apprenticeships. Names like Smith and Weaver and Miller all came from occupations.
With the industrial revolution, the need for skilled workers gave people occupational choice, but introduced the phenomena of wage slavery. Machines did what used to be done by hand. People worked not for their master, who housed and fed them, but for “the Man.” Factory owners grew wealthy, but industrious individuals could save enough to make it into the emerging middle class, strike out for the frontier, or entrepreneur their way to wealth. For most people, though, working for a wage became a fact of life. Until your job disappeared.
Technological unemployment is as old as humankind itself. The caveman who made wheels and hitched a horse to a cart made people redundant. Industrial looms displaced the spinning wheel.
Today it’s robots and high-tech gadgets. What’s different is the rate. Displacement from automation has accelerated in the last 20 years.
The driverless car is a good example. The war between taxi and ride-sharing drivers will soon be over. Both will lose to autonomous, electric “transportation as a service.” It will also disrupt oil, gas, coal, utility and car industries. And the banks who hold their loans. As The Economist magazine put it, “the effect of today’s technology on tomorrow’s jobs will be immense—and no country is ready.”
Unless the transition is managed carefully, society could become even more polarized, with a small elite gaining the chance to earn ever more from mechanized businesses while ordinary people fight for any job they can find because workers will exceed demand. This could push society back to something closer to that of the 18th century, with the eradication of today’s middle-classes, as automation cuts employment prospects of middle and upper-middle class workers. Robot doctors can run diagnoses faster and with fewer errors than human doctors, especially residents sleep deprived from working 36 hour rotations.
As many as 47% of all US jobs are at risk from technological transformation. More than 95% of insurance underwriters, credit analysts, accountants, legal assistants, couriers and many other occupations will vanish, displacing 70 million Americans. Across the rich world, more than 230 million jobs could be lost in just 20 years. But factories in the developing world are also at risk from automation, putting the livelihoods of many hundreds of millions more on the line.
A recession is when your neighbor loses her job. A depression is when you lose yours. What can be done?
A variety of countries are experimenting with variants of this.
The Finnish government is granting €560 ($637) a month to 2,000 unemployed citizens. The money is unconditional. If you find work, you still get paid. This eliminates the disincentive to work created by most welfare programs which stop paying if you get a job, and which do not help entrepreneurs start new companies.
In the Netherlands, four cities are giving selected welfare recipients $1,000 a month.
In Oakland, California, the Silicon Valley startup incubator Y Combinator is giving 100 families $1,500 to study UBI as a solution to technological unemployment.
Critics call such programs “paid slothfulness” and believe they will lead to the ruin of prosperity. But this ignores actual experience that when people have their basic needs met they don’t become couch potatoes; they engage in creating whatever they are passionate about, and poverty decreases, especially the number of children who are poor.
In Kenya, in Bando Province, an aid group, GiveDirectly is giving 26,000 dirt-poor villagers $22 a month for 12 years (close to what employed people there make each month.) Early results show that the poor spend their new money well, and that it gives people dignity. The freedom to decide how they will spend their own money relieves the stigma of begging for aid.
Most proposals would substitute UBI for current welfare schemes, diverting unemployment, and social security payments to pay for it. Businesses and the wealthy would also have to pay higher taxes on their earnings, but smart ones will see the benefit over total societal meltdown. But what if most everyone received a guaranteed income, simply because they were a member of society?
Joe Gebbia, one of the founders of AirBnB once told me that the greatest reward to him for creating the company was hearing from people who, because they were now able to monetize a spare bedroom, were able to quit their hated job and open a bakery, or go back to school. They went from wage slave to living their dream.
Why would those with money make this possible? Because if the wealthy don’t share, and the rest of the world is out of work, as Nick Hanauer puts it, “If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us.”
(images courtesy of Pixabay.com)
Read More by Hunter Lovins