Robots, Work, and Income
Robots are coming. Greater numbers and different kinds are being developed to assist or take over every type of work in every field of human endeavor. At some point, computers and robots will be able to do virtually everything humans now do. It is just a matter of time. The world as we know it is changing and governments and people need to adapt. As this happens, there will also be a disconnect between work and wages, and productivity and income. This severing of the bond that has been present for ages will be difficult for many to accept, but it is the way things will be.
How will people derive income if they are unemployed or have a fifteen or twenty hour work week, or even less? Consumption is the backbone of capitalist democracy and people need money if they are going to spend. Will everyone be provided with a base income from government? How will people occupy their free time? And how long will it be before all this occurs, when computers and various sorts of robots replace humans, increase productivity, and reduce jobs. Perhaps the transformation has already started, but so stealthily that few people are aware of it. In Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, the author noted that “the symbiotic relationship between increasing productivity and rising wages began to dissolve in the 1970s. As of 2013, a typical production or non-supervisory worker earned about 13 percent less than in 1973 (after adjusting for inflation) even as productivity rose 107 percent” …..In America in the first ten years of the 21st century, no new jobs were created when previously at least 20 percent had been generated in every decade after World War II.
There is no historical precedent for societies needing only a small percentage of its population having to work in order to maintain or advance its standard of living. In fact, an eight hour day and a forty hour week that are fairly standard in America for most workers is of relatively recent vintage. In the late 19th and early 20th century, many workers toiled twelve hours daily and six days a week to earn subsistence wages. In France now, and some other nations, a seven hour day and thirty-five hour week is the norm in many industries. Perhaps to keep unemployment at bay as computers and robotics improve, nations will gradually decrease to a twenty-hour work week or even less. And maybe there will be no choice other than having fewer people working.
However, considering man’s evolutionary process, it may not be emotionally healthy for people to eschew productive labor and have no objectives or goals. Perhaps given this situation, more individuals will be involved in creative endeavors, with an explosion of artists, writers, musicians, and so forth. An increase in artisanal efforts could occur as well, with organic farming, small restaurants with innovative owner-chefs, handmade furniture makers, potters, and various other craftspeople. Unique handmade goods could become more valuable and in greater demand than those that are mass-produced in factories. Of course, this merely reinforces that work will no longer be necessary for a majority of citizens in order for a society to function. Many people will find things to do that they enjoy and perhaps make some money doing them. But others who are unemployed will not be capable of initiating stimulating individual activities themselves and will be dependent on private organizations or government to keep them occupied with some sort of tasks. (A New York Times article noted last year that handmade goods were in demand and considered chic, especially if they were produced locally. They represented upper-middle class values, were supportive of artisans and reduced one’s carbon footprint.)
This metamorphosis will occur not only in western developed nations but over time will be a global phenomenon. Third-world countries will also become fully computerized and roboticized over the years, finding that cheaper than their once-cheap labor.
Perhaps some people will spend more time on their educations, then devote their lives to arcane areas of research that interests them and a small coterie of enthusiasts. Perhaps a devotion to games or to charitable efforts. Perhaps an obsession with sports, actively or passively. There will be time for everything. However, though people will be living longer and healthier lives, the world will need fewer of them for the fewer jobs that require human roles, and nations may institute mandatory birth control to curb their populations as China had previously done. One possible benefit of this is that global warming may be reduced as the total number of the earth’s inhabitants drop.
Though the time-line is unclear, at some point all states will undergo major transformations that will eliminate a large percentage of work and jobs, and challenge concepts of democracy. Is a minimum living income for everyone an answer to the increased unemployment that lies ahead? Are mandatory national service or make-work jobs solutions for some countries? Or perhaps to reduce social unrest, nations will limit the use of robots and computers to keep their citizens working. Of course, that will make their products more expensive and less competitive.
Every nation needs to prepare for the changes that are coming. Think tanks, workshops, corporations, NGOs, and government agencies must delve into the problem and find ways to make life tolerable with work no longer necessary for most of the world’s inhabitants. The Finish government is already considering a universal basic income (U.B.I.) for every adult and Switzerland will have a referendum on this concept this year. The Dutch city of Utrecht will try a pilot program of basic income and Canada’s Liberal Party is also reflecting on a similar idea. Though unemployment has not yet reached a tipping point, it is only a matter of time before every nation will have to decide how to deal with fewer jobs and less work for their citizens in the years ahead.
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