Downsizing society

The world is becoming increasingly automated. Jobs that were once done by people are now frequently done by machines instead. This started off in manufacturing, but the coming of self-driving cars will put huge numbers of people out of work; even lawyers are being replaced by machines. Some reports suggest that machines could do 50% of jobs within the next 30 yearsFifty percent! What will we do when half the population have been made redundant? How will we cope with such a restructuring of society?

To an economist, a job is an income. To a human being, it is much more than that. It provides a sense that you matter in society, that people beyond your family rely on you and even admire you.

If 50% of jobs are being done by machines, the question is what will people do instead? This is an important question, because we identify as our job. Our jobs define us. Let me introduce you to Louise, she’s a doctor. And this is Barry, he’s an estate agent. I bet you have different ideas of who those two people are. What about when they’re both unemployed? Unemployable. Made redundant from society.

How would so many people survive without jobs? Where’s the money to live coming from? The only possible answer seems to be some kind of universal basic income. The idea that everyone, employed or not, receives a fixed amount of money each month from the government – replacing all existing benefits and all the bureaucracy involved in administering them. With a UBI, the 50% of people without jobs would at least have some money with which to buy food and heating. But who wants to live on handouts? Who wants to be defined as unemployed? Even if the majority of people are in the same situation.

This inevitably results in a two-tier society: those that earn little to nothing on top of the basic income; and those increasingly rare few that still have jobs the machines aren’t able to do, yet. We have the non-working class, and a diminishing middle class. How can this cause anything other than resentment, envy and anger?

This is to say nothing of the challenges of funding a universal basic income. While ideas like funding it through a wealth tax make a lot of sense, could they ever succeed? Would the wealthy half ever vote for it? Would the big businesses (and their very wealthy owners) that bankroll governments stand for it?

As Brexit and Trump have shown, voters can vote for what previously seemed impossible. And we’ve barely scratched the surface of the anger and disenfranchisement that automation will bring upon us. However, with both Brexit and Trump people voted out of hope. Hope for something better. For respect. For status. For jobs. Could Farage evoke such a passionate response from a platform of “more handouts”? Of massive wealth redistribution, the likes of which no socialist government has ever even proposed? It seems improbable.

If we don’t introduce a UBI, what’s going to happen? The jobs that are left aren’t going to be spread evenly. London will always have disproportionately more jobs and lower unemployment than, say, Sunderland or Hull. What’s going to happen in these areas as unemployment becomes endemic? Rising anger seems inevitable. Riots. A public whipped into a frenzy of hatred against some group of “others”?

With so much anger, extreme politics is only going to increase. Does a majority of the public already feel left behind? Made redundant by automation? So far this has given us Brexit and Trump. It’s only going to get worse. Who are we going to wage war on? Syria? ISIS? China? Germany? This is the armageddon outcome. So many people feel so disenfranchised that we inadvertently start world war three.

What other outcomes are there? Another possibility is some kind of neo-luddite movement railing against technology. So far everyone’s anger at disappearing jobs has been directed at migrants. When people realise its actually technology taking their jobs, could that anger end up directed at technology instead? You can imagine someone like Farage standing against technology. Of banning automation. Of holding back progress to protect jobs. While this couldn’t hold back the tide forever, it could delay the inevitable march of technology for some years.

The flip-side of this neo-luddite revolution, is the inevitable flight of technology outside of such a regime. With the future being held back in one place, technologists will move somewhere else; to somewhere innovation is encouraged instead of criminalised. Some enterprising country, say Switzerland, would reduce taxes for technology companies to encourage them to relocate. The remaining jobs, and the people to do them, all move to an employment enclave. This exacerbates the split in society: between the wealthy employed few, and the many under-employed poor. This is the “Switzerland outcome”. A physical as well as economic split in society.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the jobs that disappear are replaced by new jobs. Jobs in manual labour become replaced with jobs like “social media consultant” that would have been unimaginable in Victorian England (some would say still are). But the signs aren’t good: in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis jobs aren’t returning in great numbers – they’re being done by robots instead. This might be the first economic recovery in history that hasn’t been accompanied by an increase in employment.

Eventually we’re bound to discover a universal basic income, or something like it. It might take a very long time – a time in which the social strife could be immense. But eventually, barring armageddon, we will have to find a way to move to a post-work society; that means finding a way for people without work to live happy, fulfilled lives.

But in a life without work, how will people find meaning in their lives? With the ready availability of automation, some people might move back onto the land – to become 21st century peasant farmers. With the help of machines it could be quite possible for a family to provide for itself and maintain a decent standard of living through farming alone. Of course, with our heavily urbanised society plenty of people have neither the space nor the wherewithal to do this; but for some this could be a good alternative to the slums from where jobs have vanished.

The ready availability of time frees people up for any project they wish to embark on. The utopian outcome is enabling everyone to become creative, to embark on personal projects and self-expression. A society full of people doing what people do best: being human and creative. Is this realistic? Some people would relish the opportunity to dedicate themselves to creative pursuits. But plenty of others would not, instead looking for the structure and security their jobs used to offer.

Could this usher in an era of grand projects? Where people band together to achieve some lofty goal? Not for financial compensation, but for the joy of being part of something bigger. With everyone’s basic needs met, instead of working for money people look for meaning. They will take part in activities that inspire them, for free. The cost of labour at this point is basically zero, for the first time in human history. The only constraint: the end goal has to inspire people. Improving the efficiency of a government department? Hardly. Flying to Mars? Almost certainly.

But there will still be plenty of people who feel they can’t contribute but need structure in their life. Iain M. Banks’ Culture series describes a post-work society where the machines run everything; but in Banks’ universe people dedicate themselves full-time to leisure. While no doubt attractive to some, this life seems without structure, without purpose. Can people really live like this? Work has defined us, given structure to our day, given us meaning. Without this, who are we?

It is likely that the end result is some mixture of all of these outcomes. Each individual finding their own way in an increasingly diverse world – the simple answer of finding a job, any job, is no longer possible; instead people are forced to find their own answers to hard questions: what am I going to do with my life?

As we approach this future, what are we to do? How can we prepare for the upcoming earthquake in society? It seems inevitable that this will be a tumultuous time. How can we smooth the transition to a post-work society?

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