Universal Basic Income: What If the Problem Isn’t Automation but Work Itself?
We've been approaching the issue from the wrong angle.
Rethinking Paid Work
We’ve all been warned about the upcoming machine takeover in the world of work. Studies have shown that 47 percent of jobs in the United States are expected to be replaced by smart machines and other forms of automated systems in the next decade or so. In Southeast Asia, about 137 million workers are bound to lose their jobs to automation in the next 20 years.
This all seems inevitable. In fact, it’s already happening for some companies including Walmart, Barclays, and a life insurance firm in Japan — not to mention Amazon Go, the retail store of the future. Automation is going to be a problem as far as employment is concerned. At least, that’s how it seems.
But what if we’ve been looking at the situation the wrong way? What if paid employment, or work as we know it, is actually the problem?
This is the unconventional idea proposed by the Green Institute, a progressive Australia-based think tank founded in 2008 and currently headed by Tim Hollo. In a report entitled “Can Less Work Be More Fair?,” the Green Institute writes:
Into this world of increasing inequality, insecurity, and alienation comes the prospect of less and less paid work, and increasing precarity of what work there is. Does this have to be the cause of more fear? Does it have to turn us against each other even more as we fight for the scraps from the tables of the 1%? Or can we turn it into an opportunity to truly improve people’s lives?
A Case for UBI and Shorter Work Weeks
The report actually sees the potential for universal basic income (UBI) and for a shorter work week as key policy positions for moving ahead into the future. Hollo explains the reasoning behind these:
If we fail to analyze these trends and look to the future right now, we’re missing a huge issue. Our culture has increasingly told us that paid work is where we find our dignity and our place in society and if we aren’t able to find paid work, we are less worthy. There is so much more to life, to contributing to society, than paid work.
This echoes the report itself, which asks:
What if, instead of trying to recreate an old world of abundant paid work, we […] built systems, institutions and cultures in which less paid work could lead to greater equity, reinvigorated democracy and civil society, better environmental outcomes, and a more caring, creative, connected community?
Greg Marston, a sociologist at the University of Queensland and one of the authors of the report, sees UBI and shorter work weeks as a revamped understanding of an old idea in economics called a steady state economy. “I think the two policies reinforce each other,” Marston explained. “They send a message that a healthy society is one where we don’t have a simultaneous problem of overemployment and underemployment.” Marston also adds that UBI is a floor on earnings and not a ceiling, which means that it isn’t incompatible with paid work.
In the end, the best way to address the upcoming job loss due to automation is to reframe the way see work. “People actually work far better when they are treated better, when they work less hard, when they feel respected and valued,” Hollo reasoned out. “Many companies are coming to understand that, and I believe those ideas will spread, more than anything, because they are so obviously true.”
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