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AUG 21, 2020

Preparing Ourselves for the Future of Work(lessness)

By Laura Abbott
Quality control jobs like this one are increasingly being automated. martin-dm @iStock

Science fiction often depicts either utopias or dystopias for humanity’s future, but the reality is we’re more likely to live in a future that’s less extreme.

Having said that, human progress isn’t linear. The problems of today could make the near future a bit rocky. Human labor is failing, and though global inequality fell between 1920 and 1980, it’s on the rise again and set to surpass levels not seen since the Gilded Age.

It’s time to rethink the way we share our society’s economic prosperity. Labor, our age-old answer to this question, is failing.

Human labor is increasingly unnecessary.

The average citizen takes labor for granted as a means of wealth distribution. Workers are paid for their work. Businesses pay for the work. If businesses need to be more productive, they increase the number or skill of their workers. Many of us would find it hard to imagine living any other way.

But as Daniel Susskind shows in his book, A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond, increasing work quality no longer means educating workers. More and more, it means replacing them with a cheaper machine.

An automated dairy factory in Africa.
This dairy factory in Africa is almost entirely automated. | GCShutter @iStock

It’s not supercomputers replacing workers, either. It’s just your average computer. As the computers of the future learn to believably imitate things like emotional intimacy, creativity, and sarcasm, humans will be required less and less. So while you won’t become jobless overnight, job descriptions will narrow, forcing employers to combine positions to cut costs.

Human labor won’t go out with a bang, but a whimper.

In a world without work, governance is key.

When work no longer puts prosperity in the hands of citizens, catastrophic inequality will be hard to avoid.

So we need to prepare.

Using government to wholly control the economic pie is a no-go, but there’s no reason the government can’t simply distribute the pie. Many governments, after all, already do this.

According to Susskind, the government’s role in a world without work will be to tax those retaining capital and/or income, then redistribute that wealth to all citizens. This will mean taxing the incomes of high-earning citizens, big business, and controversially, capital itself.

Therefore, it’s the government, not a firm in the private sector, that is the most appropriate body to tackle post-work inequality.

As unpleasant as it may be, a new system will soon be necessary. Those in place are designed for a world where employment is the norm, and this just won’t cut it in a workless world.

It’s a transition, not a switch flip. 

Susskind is clear that a workless world won’t uniformly or rapidly manifest.

We won’t all become workless at the same time, but the slow and consistent growth of jobless citizens will end with the same result. Without any alternative way to distribute wealth, many will be forced into poverty. Coronavirus, which has put more than 51 million Americans out of work, is already illustrating what worklessness will do to quality of life and the economy on a grand scale.

A homeless woman in Claremont Village, California. Rates of homelessness are likely to increase the longer joblessness remains an issue. | Russ Loar @Flickr

While a workless life seems fun and fancy free, the transition to that life will be anything but. French Economist Gilles Saint-Paul predicts the future could hold anything from a rise in living virtually to governance by hierarchical obligation to the rich and powerful. It could even mean a world in which we no longer have sufficient food or quality of life to continue growing our population.

According to Saint-Paul, as soon as salaries (for those who still have them, anyway) fall too low to support a basic standard of living, populations will rapidly decline if the state hasn’t provided alternative means of support. War, famine, and epidemic could follow.

Taking action when society is nearly saturated with worklessness will be taking action too late. This is why we need to begin the transition now.

Certain countries will transition faster.

The distributive welfare state of the future will not happen uniformly. Countries with the foresight, money, and drive to prepare will avoid the worst effects of mass joblessness and come out on top.

And there is an interesting commonality among those who are already preparing: language.

Languages with indistinct present and future tenses, like East Asian languages, seem to correlate with more time spent preparing for the future. Meanwhile, speakers of Latin-based languages tend to forget the nearness of the future and end up wasting valuable time.

Asia/Australia has led industrial robotics in units installed since 2008.
Asia/Australia has led industrial robotics in units installed since 2008. Data from IFR.

Maybe this is why China and Japan pour far more money into robotics, automation, and education for citizens to become data experts. China, for better or worse, is already using big data in more flexible and innovative ways than anywhere in the West. This infrastructure will be necessary in the transition to a world without work.

So how should we distribute society’s wealth?

If we could easily shift to a system of more fairly distributed wealth, we would probably already be living in it. As it stands, UBI is the best option for us to take the first step. Citizens will need to show current policymakers that the life expectancy of our current system is shrinking day by day, and it’s time for a change. Educating communities will help expedite this process and prepare us for cultural change heading our way.

Preparing for a world without work begins now.