What would the world be like with fewer jobs?

I’m still pondering an article I read yesterday about a future world with far fewer jobs or paid work. (The article itself referred to a world without work, but, as someone without a job, I can assure you that there is always plenty of work to do.)

The author didn’t see it happening anytime soon, but he does point out that we need to devise social institutions now to cope with the future shrinkage of paid employment. Well, good luck with that; in the past 50 years have human institutions ever been structurally or emotionally prepared for the changes they bring into bring? (Perhaps the population was adequately prepared for the introduction of the NHS or the changeover from town gas to natural gas in the 1960s, but it doesn’t take much emotional or social engagement to get your gas appliances updated.)

The author states that one of the current consequences of digital technology is to concentrate wealth amongst a globalised elite and render much unskilled labour (i.e. people) surplus to requirements. I’m not sure how that squares with UK employment being at an all-time high, but it certainly corresponds to the experience of suppressed wage growth. It also correlates with a low-wage, low-productivity model, where cheap labour discourages high-tech solutions. Presumably this is why the author sees full automation, albeit inevitable, as some generations away. We still have to overcome the inertia of doing things on the cheap.

But once you start removing paid employment from ordinary people (while the owners continue to accrue the profits), you also remove their means of subsistence and of identity. In order to avoid social collapse, you need to find a way of getting an income to the work-free, but each proposal has its problems. You could redistribute wealth, but the net contributors might not like the prospect of their taxes going on “something for nothing”, particularly if they see the recipients as too different from themselves. A higher minimum wage would be popular with workers but not employers – and it might encourage greater automation in order to bypass the workers. Trades unions and workers are apparently not particularly interested in the idea of a universal basic income; they prefer the continuation of a link between work and income. Government could impose more regulation, but globalised firms are likely to tell them to get lost and find cheaper labour/greater automation. And what do masses of people do if they have no jobs and little money?

The article makes no mention of the planet’s finite resources – always an omission when looking at the future. Nor does it acknowledge that the leisured future has been predicted before without being realised. However, since this author’s timescale seems to be at least the end of this century, I still have plenty of time to ponder.

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