The Future of Work - Time for a Universal Living Wage?
You might say that the scales falling from my eyes about my unhealthy work habits and my strong desire for a different way of blending my work with the rest of my life was a mid-life crisis, pure and simple.
But I also think there’s a change brewing in the world of work which has conveniently coincided with my personal existential angst.
Is the Future of Work non-human?
The world being taken over by Bots who are far superior to humans in every way and eventually turn us into their slaves has been a concern of mankind since the Industrial Revolution.
But we are already seeing tech that can far outperform humans in a number of areas, particularly operations that require analysis of data and repetitive tasks. Optimists claim that leaving bots to this laborious work frees human beings to do work with that never would have been possible before. We’re so busy, they say, ineffectively doing data analysis and repetitive tasks that we don’t have time to raise our sights higher. Equally, if bots did it the hard slog we’d have access to incredible insights, sparking our creativity and creating new challenges that human beings could get stuck into resolving.
But this kind of work isn’t going to be done by the same people who currently spend their day inputting data. These wonderful new human jobs are going to be done by kids who are still in high school. What will the legions of people who pay their rent by doing pretty dull jobs do when a bot successfully applies to be their replacement?
My own prediction (and it’s echoed by many others) is that there will not be enough work or work of the right type for large tracts of the population. Or rather, there will be plenty to do but not in the way we’ve imagined “work” during the Industrial Age.
I’m sure we could all keep ourselves busy with looking after the kids, caring for elderly or sick relatives and neighbours, our hobbies, going on courses and enhancing ourselves and our skills, attending meetings about projects we could add value to, having fabulous discussions which eventually generate ideas that could be turned into businesses...It’s just that we tend not to have a way to pay people to do any of this stuff unless we give them a job and a job title and tell them this is what they’re doing to be doing 10 hours a day, 5 days a week until we don’t need them to do it anymore.
The Future of Work means Rethinking Work
Not only do I predict that there won’t be enough work but that work will be increasingly poorly distributed. Some people will have nothing to do that pays them a wage while others will be working so hard that it’s inhuman. In fact, I think we’re basically there.
Jobs that used to be done by 3 people are now done by one because of “efficiency savings” and the promise that technology makes it easier for them and therefore 3 people aren’t required.
But despite the fact that we’re all working our tails off (except those of us who don’t have enough to do) productivity is almost stagnant. All this work isn’t making our world any richer.
Moreover, it’s making us sick. Levels of work-related stress and depression are on the rise. Levels of trust in authority figures are falling fast. Our world isn’t a very spiritually healthy place to be right now.
Our expectation is that people who care about what they do will practically kill themselves, sacrificing significant parts of the rest of their lives to prove their commitment. And that’s leading to a realisation amongst more and more people that our relationship with work is dysfunctional.
We work in part because it matters to us. We work to contribute. We work because it’s good to learn and grow. We work because we want to use our skills and talents. And we work to pay for our lives, to have choices, adventures.
But if we can’t rely on work to be there for us throughout our lives, how do we get those needs met? If working hard doesn’t make our businesses more productive then why are we busting a gut? And if the real contribution human beings make in the world doesn’t necessarily come in a neatly packaged “job” but looks more like a collection of roles we perform in the world, some of which we are paid for and some of which we do out of the goodness of our heart, duty, love or to express our innate human creativity, how do we support our people?
The Future of Work and the Universal Living Wage
Which brings me to an idea that is gaining traction - the Universal Living Wage or The Universal Basic Income (UBI).
In a world where unemployment has been so closely associated with sherkers who would rather watch daytime TV and live off the state than contribute to our society, the idea that we would pay everyone enough to live on without expecting them to work feels bizarre.
But if we imagine a world where there literally isn’t enough paid work for everyone to do all the time (a gig economy, for instance) then what are the alternatives? Are we going to penalise people just because they were born 10 years too early to have the skills today’s world needs? Or because the work they do is only needed for 3 months of the year? Or because the work they do is vital (caring for kids, looking after a disabled friend) but isn’t a job-job? Or because the work they do makes the world a better place (artists, filmmakers) but doesn’t make them enough money to live on at a time when the jobs they would have done to supplement their art no longer exist?
The Future of Work - What do you think?
The UBI is controversial. If we all have a basic level of income, prices could rise leaving those reliant on the UBI in poverty just as many of today’s state benefits leave people in poverty. It may also spell the end of the welfare state as everyone would get something, meaning there would be an argument for no more jobseekers allowance, disability benefit, child benefit and the rest. Wages could fall and employers would feel no compulsion to pay people enough to live on. Plus there’s something distinctly unfair about the super rich getting money from the state that they don’t need.
And, of course, we have no idea whether people would use the money to enhance their lives or just sit around eating junk food and playing “Resident Evil - Biohazard”.
What’s for sure is that if mass unemployment or under-employment is a consequence of the invasion of the Bots we can’t continue to treat those without work as pariahs. We have to recognise that work and non-work, jobs and non-jobs need to be rethought and only radical solutions will do.
What do you think?
What impact will the automation of jobs have on the job market?
What solutions are you toying with to cope with the consequences?
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