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A World Without Work

We don't need full employment, we need full unemployment

4Mar

A nine month investigation by the Resolution Foundation has concluded that if the government wants to achieve its goal of full employment, it needs a radical new post-crisis approach. Both the report and the government are wrong. Technological advances in automation mean that the goal should no longer be full employment. As Arthur C Clarke once said, ‘the goal of the future is full unemployment’.

There is an epidemic of busyness in the Western world. Ask someone how they’ve been and they’ll immediately launch into a rant about how they’re rushed off their feet, as if they’re getting in their defense before you can call them lazy. They’ll probably mop their brow, shake their head and flail their arms as they say it too, to demonstrate what being really busy looks like. Strangely, this epidemic of busyness has come at a time when technology now performs the majority of our daily functions. People work 100 hour weeks in jobs in ultimately meaningless jobs - meaningless jobs that machines would be perfectly capable of doing.

People like to feel that what they do in their day-to-day job is important. Sometimes what people do really is important. Mostly, however, it’s not. In Magnus Mills’s novel The Scheme For Full Employment, society eradicates unemployment by having its citizens drive a fleet of vans from one depot to another carrying parts to maintain the vans. This is an apt metaphor for the digital job market, in which many roles seem to exist only to perpetuate themselves. Money changes hands somewhere, but it’s really not that clear where it’s coming from. If you ask, people usually just say advertising. Often, they’re advertising things that are themselves making money from advertising. Advertising funding advertising funding advertising funding advertising.

This desperation to work stems from an entrenched belief that it’s virtuous, and that the devil makes work for idle hands. Eliminating the need for jobs has for too long been seen as some sort of nightmare. In reality, there is far too much work done in the world. In 2014/2015, 9.9 million days were lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. This desperate quest to feel like you’re doing something that matters is killing you. Advances in automation should soon put paid to the scourge that is employment, though. Over the next two decades, researchers from Oxford University have estimated that 47% of US jobs could be automated. Even in the retail industry, it’s been predicted that 60% of jobs will be automated in 20 years time.

Intelligent automation was recently named the tech trend of the year by Accenture. Really though, we’ve yet to scratch the surface. It will impact every aspect of the economy: data collection (radio-frequency identification, big data), new kinds of production (the flexible production of robots, manufacturing, decision-making (computational models, software agents), financial allocation (algorithmic trading), and especially distribution (the logistics revolution, self-driving cars, automated warehouses). Automation uses machine learning and deep learning algorithms in ways that are making computers better than humans at a number of skilled-knowledge tasks, and enables advances in robotics that are fast making technology better at a wide variety of manual labor roles. Even activities like writing news stories and researching legal precedents are now being done by robots.

Automation gets a bad rap. People fear that they will lose their jobs. But people don’t really fear losing their jobs, they fear losing their income. The need people have to convince everyone how busy they are is really just a way of convincing them that they’re needed in the world. If the human race is to survive and flourish, we need to change our attitude to work, and people need to better appreciate the value of idleness. The dream of a utopian society could well be realized if wealth was created by machines and then shared out. Both wealth and leisure need no longer be the privilege of the well-off, it can be shared among everyone. Bertrand Russell once argued that ‘modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.’ That was over 80 years ago, and it seems we haven’t learnt our lesson. Pensions company Royal London now says that average earners who from the unlikely age of 22 put aside money for retirement will find themselves working until around the age of 77 if they wish to enjoy the same standard of living their parents did on retiring. By then, the jobs that we make up for ourselves are likely to have grown almost comically needless. 

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