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Technology and Unemployment, Part III: Abolishing the Work-to-Live Paradigm

In Parts I and II, I described how advancing technology eats away at the job market from the inside out. What remain are lower-skill jobs with wages that may not sustain a family and skilled jobs whose educational requirements are far out of reach for most. Alas — are we doomed by our own genius, destined to the sad fate of being sidelined by our own creations? Less theatrically: What is it that we can do to manage the twin threats of high long-term rates of unemployment and increasing disparities in both wealth and opportunity?

The fact of the matter is, progress is inexorable. Railing against advancing technology or interconnected markets or the pursuit of profit is neither useful nor helpful. In this third piece, I would like to discuss the opportunities I see provided to us in our situation and why I am hopeful for the future.

As I see it, traditional employment is a broken system that forces people to occupy their lives with uninteresting tasks. It is a system that we endure because of societal inertia and a lack of viable alternatives. Since our lust for progress and innovation is beginning to break that system, let us not fight the future but rather seize the chance to embrace a better system with more fulfilling occupations. Central to this is a fundamental shift in how we live our lives: changing from today’s work-to-live paradigm towards one where the government guarantees a baseline standard of living.

While jobs provide the wages people need to avoid living on the street, they are hardly a source of satisfaction for most people. Unhappy workplaces are regularly the subject of ire, and stories of horrible bosses or coworkers and the like have become part of modern lore. Indeed, the popularity of shows like “The Office” is based on the shared experience of communal workplace suffering. A 2008 Towers Perrin study of over 90,000 workers worldwide discovered that only 21 percent of employees could be considered fully invested in their work, while a full 38 percent were either disenchanted or totally disengaged. Given how much of our waking lives are consumed by work, this is a truly tragic figure.

For an unfortunately large number of people, work is actually an impediment to their hopes and dreams rather than something enjoyable or fulfilling. Given that traditional employment is so disliked, we should use the increased productivity that technology gives us to enable people to live comfortably without having to work.

In his TED talk, “Laws that Choke Creativity,” celebrated lawyer Lawrence Lessig talks about an “amateur culture” in which “people produce for the love of what they’re doing and not for the money.” I call this world “post-employment.” Of course, several issues immediately present themselves. How are people going to support themselves without earning money? And will people actually be happier if left to their own devices?

These issues cannot be ignored, and, coupled with the fact that technologically induced unemployment can be neither rushed nor preempted, they lead me to suggest the gradual adoption of a government-guaranteed quality of life, or universal basic income. This will give society time to adjust to the mindset of individuals working for individuals while still freeing people — to a certain point — from having to support themselves. Subsequently, the system will allow people to begin pursuing their own interests.

Hardly communism, universal income merely considers a baseline standard of living a human right and leaves people free to pursue unlimited material gains above and beyond that. The first stage of this should be livable unemployment benefits, approached with the economist Loek Groot’s attitude that “what [the unemployed] are doing for us is occupying slots…that someone has to occupy in an economy with any appreciable level of structural unemployment; and unemployment benefits…[are] payments to them for that service.” We could all be unemployed, so we should take care of the ones that are.

This solves the problem of resource cost as it requires only a relatively minimal increase in redistribution due to unemployment. It is also critical because over time, automation is becoming more prevalent, unemployment is rising and fewer humans are working to produce. Since technology has no need to reap the benefits of its produce, the excess value from automation can be cycled back to humanity through these “unemployment benefits.”

This proposal allows for the voluntarily unemployed, or those early adopters of post-unemployment, to live as they wish, while at the same time not forcing change but rather simply keeping up with the pace of automation. Societal attitudes towards traditional work will shift on their own as more and more people discover the benefits of comfortable job-free living.

Once automation and corresponding unemployment has reached a critical mass and cultural acceptance of post-employment has taken root, finally universal basic income can be officially adopted, though by this point it will likely make little difference from the already in-place scaled unemployment benefits. People will be free to pursue their passions rather than strive simply to survive, while those who still wish to do so can continue to do business and advance their own material wealth beyond the guaranteed baseline. But the freedom is what makes a fully fulfilling and eternally engaged life.

 

Contact Rahul Gupta-Iwasaki at [email protected]

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