Widgets Magazine


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 rahulgi@stanford.edu

  • Mr Blishter

    The Stanford Bookstore is an example of technology replacing work. Not too long ago the bookstore’s core mission was to provide a world class center for students and faculty to acquire tools for their education. The store was staffed with many Stanford alumnae and the employees there felt they were part of the Stanford Community. Today that sounds as quaint as the Stanford’s desire to provide a free education to children in order to compensate for losing their only child.

    Today’s bookstore is owned and operated by Follett. Follett runs many bookstores including Cal, Baylor and Notre Dame. Follett stores are usually recognizable because of their resemblance to 7/11s and other small stripped down retailers. Due to technology, Follett has found itself on the wrong side of a paradigm shift. Rather than paring down its executive ranks, however, it has taken its corporate wrath out on its employees. April 2012 brought a new director to the Stanford Bookstore. He was blessed with an experienced senior staff who had guided the store through a difficult period while their former director was dying from cancer. During that difficult time, the bookstore achieved its objectives and it continued to service the campus community. As of today only one person, from that team, is left. The director has run everyone else off. Not to be outdone, Follett has fired most full time employees who had benefits. They’re replacing them with part time employees who will receive no benefits.

    The same technology that enables you to purchase text books from across the globe has enabled Follett to crush wage earners security a standard of living.

    I’m writing this so you know what has happened. It is morally neutral. It just is. It is an example of how technology empowers some and leaves others behind.

  • anonymous

    Socialism has been tried numerous times in history. It fails,and it particularly fails the poor. Providing a “universal income” would simply lead to free-riders. Further, technology’s impact is to lower the cost of products, which is already passed along to consumers in lower prices and/or profits that increase the value of corporate shares that are owned by most Americans.

    Far from being a yoke that binds us to that which we despise, work is a virtue — and especially work at which we excel and which improves the life of others. Earning one’s way through life is to be respected, not vilified.

  • Mr Libertarian

    I stopped counting the errors in this piece. This is as anonymous simply socialism, the utopia that basically says a few elites can engineer society and run it benevolently. If anyone wishes to debate these ideas, I will be glad to add some logic to the notion that freedom and creativity is the answer to all of Rahul’s concerns.

  • Capitalist

    We live in a Republic blessed with the greatest capitalist system ever devised and this system has created the greatest economy and highest level of opportunity for all citizens in the history
    of the world. This article sounds like it was written by someone who need to find a career and
    job from which he can derive more intrinsic fulfillment. Personally, I love the career I have had
    and thank America for giving me the freedom to pursue it.

    Regarding his idea, the first giant assumption he makes is that the Federal Government is capable of and should be responsible for this socialist society, devoid of motivation for people to achieve. Lots of luck with that.

  • MrBlishter

    we can agree on one thing, at least; our economic systems fuels innovation at a break neck pace. However, one can’t possibly know what is in one’s best interest given any length of time.
    As to our “capitalist” republic, it’s hardly that. We’re living in a time devoid of risk;reward. Those who reap rewards simply stand in the way of innovation and demand to be paid before they move out of the way. Executives demand salaries that dwarf the salaries of those who produce value for the companies clients, yet they risk nothing. Capitalism is, if nothing else, a risk reward proposition. These past 15 have demonstrated that is missing from our republic.

  • Mr Blishter

    food, fuel and shelter have seen price reductions?

  • anonymous

    Yes, they have.

    Food: As a percentage of the average HH income, food costs less now (down from 17% to 11% in 30 years). http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2013/03/america-food-getting-cheaper-unless-youre-poor/4923/ And it’s cheapest in capitalist America where competition drives costs down and quality up.

    Housing is only 25% (http://www.bls.gov/cex/anthology/csxanth6.pdf) of income despite growing dwelling sizes. The historical average is closer to 30%.

    Fuel is down vs. last year (per gallon) and substantially down in terms of % of income vs. 30 years ago.

    So where does the rest go? Clothes, taxes and lots of “luxury goods” that the average family didn’t have 50 years ago (multiple cars & TVs, air conditioners, washing machines, leisure activities, computers, etc.). Our lives are better now in terms of physical goods.

  • Mr Blishter

    And income growth has been distributed equally? So, you just cited that if you’re rich and getting richer everything costs less (as a percentage of income). That is an eloquent argument for changing the tax codes and taxing upper incomes at a much higher rate (especially non-earned income over x amount).

  • anonymous

    Sorry, no. Income inequality is a useless metric. The poor in America are richer in real terms than 20 years ago and have more wealth and health than the vast majority of countries. Arguing that it’s low compared to other Americans is beside the point.

    Point to a system that has proven over the long term to “correct” that metric without lowering the poor’s true standard of living.

    Besides, don’t we want a system that rewards hard, valuable work? Those get more people working, supporting themselves and their family.

  • Futurist

    This isnt socialism, it’s a post-left anarchist concept called “refusal of work”.

    The analysis is the same at least, they just don’t jump to say “therefore, the government should support minimum comfortable lifestyle”, which they don’t believe would solve the issue (people’s alienation/ dissatisfaction). Instead, they explore more interesting solutions.

  • MrBlishter

    we’ve wondered a bit far afield haven’t we. The article was about how technology is changing markets. My original post dealt with an example of this paradigm, here on the Stanford campus. As I stated, the change and the technology are morally neutral. But like the generations before us, we should be mindful of the choices we make. For 100 years little thought was given to burning more and more fossil fuels. For 100 years little thought was given to dumping poison into the nearest body of water or into the ground. The enabling technology was morally neutral, but the people making the choices are morally responsible.
    Technology has changed our landscape. At the beginning of the next quarter, look at the front of the post office. It is littered with single use cardboard shipping containers. They weren’t there 10 years ago. 10 years ago there were lines in the bookstore instead. Technology has enabled individuals to make choices. Those choices have changed markets.