The topic of looming technological unemployment due to the rise of automation in multiple industries has become increasingly prevalent over the past few years, usually focusing on questions such as:
How do we retrain people to do the kinds of work that will be available, once lower skilled tasks have been automated?
Should we have a universal basic income (UBI) or similar scheme to provide a better safety net for people, while they’re in between jobs?
The questions are pointing towards a wicked problem, sure enough, but I don’t think they’re digging as deeply into the foundations as we need to dig.
Neither does Tom Graves.
Do we now live in a post-jobs era? With the rise of AI (artificial/augmented intelligence) and suchlike, do we need to rethink the meaning of ‘a job’ – or what it is to be without one?
To me, the short-answer to “Do we now live in a post-jobs era?” is ‘Not yet – but we need to be’.
More to the point, though, we should never have been in a ‘jobs-era’ in the first place. Even the very concept of a ‘job’, and its social implications, was a mistake, right from the very beginning. And that’s the bit that gets missed out in most of the conversations on ‘post-jobs’ and the like…
Step back a bit. What exactly is a job?
The short-answer here is that it’s an agreement by which we exchange work for money. That money in turn entitles us to a share in the society’s resources, with a certain amount of choice about which resources we access and use. And if we don’t have a job, we therefore have no rights to any share in the society’s resources. That’s fair enough, isn’t it?
Not quite. What happens to those who can’t get a job, either because they’re ill or disabled, or too young or too old? What happens to those who are otherwise engaged in other socially-necessary work that is non-exchangeable, such as parenting or elder-care? (Why is it that if two people care for each other’s children, it’s classed as ‘a job’, whereas if they each do exactly the same work in looking after their own children, it’s now not ‘a job’?) What happens if there’s no paid-work around – or no work that we can do, and no means to train up to do it?
That’s how we end up with the mess of taxes and benefits and pensions and the like: that whole mess exists primarily because the concept of ‘a job’ as denoting entitlement of access to societal resources doesn’t work.
Let’s get the minor point on which I don’t quite agree with Tom out of the way first.
Irrational or misguided as decisions may appear in retrospect, people generally do whatever makes most sense to them at the time of making a decision, within the context of the situation they are in. If I were my great-great-great-great-grandparent, I would no doubt have done the same thing they did. Or, to put it another way, I think that for quite some time, the “get a job and earn a living” formula made a lot of sense for our society.
However. Just because it was functional then does not mean it is functional now.
And as Tom points out, there are very real issues associated with our now deeply embedded social contract of exchanging work for an entitlement (via money) to share in society’s resources, which are frequently missed in conversations about job automation, UBI and so forth.
What are some questions which might dig deeply enough into the problem to provide possible insight to solution/s, or ways of avoiding the problem altogether whilst achieving what we really want to achieve?