How can we get an income when automation takes away our jobs?

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?

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Hi Kylie,

Love the forum, and am delighted to be one of the first through the door :).

I’m going to respond to this post by focusing on the assertions of John Michael Greer, who I consider to be one of the most prophetic socio-economic thinkers of our time – as I believe that ‘digging deep’ on this issue requires us to recognise the hard realities he illustrates.

Firstly, JMG emphasises the subtle yet profound distinction between a ‘problem’ and a ‘predicament’ – the key difference being that problems have solutions, whereas predicaments don’t. Appropriate action can be taken to mitigate the destructive impacts associated with an undesirable predicament, but the essential character of the situation remains unchanged.

I believe that the overwhelming majority of the challenges humanity faces at this critical moment in our history fall squarely in the latter category – which leads me onto Greer’s theory of Catablolic Collapse and critique of the Myth of Progress. The former is a (very robustly researched) ‘stairway model’ of societal collapse – which asserts that civilisations typically unravel in a predictable pattern when faced with very similar circumstances (resource depletion, environmental collapse, an entrenched, immovable and corrupt elite etc.)

He states that this process generally unfolds over the course of 100 – 300 years, marked by substantial crises which are then followed by periods of relative stability and partial recovery (as society adjusts to its new reality and layers of infrastructure disintegrate – allowing remaining resources to be distributed more efficiently).

He’s also very scathing about the Myth of Progress – the idea that human history follows a linear progression and that our civilisation is somehow not bound to the principles that saw our predecessors founder.

So, returning to the issue at hand, I think that the difficulty here is that we’re treating a predicament as if it were a problem. Both of the questions stipulated are – to my mind – products of the Myth of Progress: we aren’t going to retrain low-skilled workers to perform highly technical tasks, and those high tech social developments aren’t going to persist anyway, because we don’t have the resources to sustain them. Equally, a universal basic income requires a resource base and degree of social, political and economic stability to administer it that has already passed us by.

I believe that JMG’s process of Catabolic Collapse is already well under way in the Western world, and can be evidenced most clearly in America’s decaying post-industrial cities. Here, many citizens are already living lives unplugged from the dominant neoliberal apparatus.

I believe that looking at their predicament and enquiring about their experiences is the best way to assess where we’re heading and how to respond – by developing interconnected, low-tech, people-powered local markets of goods and services amidst the wreckage of our rapidly crumbling infrastructure:

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…I hadn’t read the post on ‘Wicked Problems’ when I wrote this - but I see that it parallels JMG’s assessment of problems vs. predicaments quite closely. It’s good to have another analytical framework to address this stuff - and the conclusion I propose in the above post seems very in-keeping with your own observations related to the phenomena: “Focusing on solving a problem in itself tends to make us think about temporary and partial “fixes”, when what we really need is a better vision of the future that doesn’t have those problems in it” - indeed!

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Hi Kevin :grinning: … it’s wonderful to see you here, and yeah, I’m often pretty impressed by John Michael Greer myself.

JMG tends towards greater precision in his word usage than I do. I remember reading something quite a few years ago now that he wrote on the distinction between a ‘problem’ and a ‘predicament’ and immediately recategorising them in my mind as a ‘normal’ fixable problem vs a hairy/complex/wicked/systemic/boundary-transgressing problem. (I don’t know why I do this. ‘Predicament’ is a good term. But somehow the term “wicked” had already embedded itself into my brain before I ever stumbled across the Archdruid Report, and now I’m stuck with it.)

I’m generally inclined to agree with JMG on the ‘stairway model’ of societal collapse as well, although I think I diverge a little from his view in that I think in some ways things are different now. For example, this time around I see a number of very steep and nasty stairs which just might break our necks, thanks to our current reliance on extremely brittle structures in food chains and the like, coupled with a massive degradation in our practical sovereignty and competence as individuals. History repeats itself to a large degree, yes, because humans are still human, but context matters too, and I think that in the past 200 years we’ve disrupted the context enough, divorcing ourselves from reality and the natural world, that we can’t assume the breakdown will be survivable. (Incidentally, “The Long Descent” is still staring at me accusingly from my bookshelf because I bought it years ago and still haven’t read it …! So if I’m misrepresenting JMG’s position, I have to just plead guilty for making assumptions and eat a few of my words. I can at least give him due credit for one piece of advice I took to heart myself and every so often share with others, too: “Collapse now and avoid the rush.”)

But back to automation and Universal Basic Income (UBI).

I like it that you’ve challenged the framing of technological unemployment and UBI as products of the Myth of Progress. I also agree that at least part of our response needs to be to increase our resilience with “interconnected, low tech, people powered local markets of goods and services”. Back to those brittle supply chains again! And thanks for the link to the video … 'twas a good one!

There’s another question which rattles around a bit in my mind: I wonder whether we might be able to retain and utilise our communication technologies to facilitate commons governance, at all levels, and in the process perhaps reimagine our relationships with the world and each other. If we can keep our communication technologies intact, we could share anti-rivalrous resources (like knowledge) across the globe, whilst providing good information on stocks and flows of rivalrous ones … and perhaps reimagining our economic stories to ensure fairer distribution of the latter in the process. (This is what I’m working on here: Global Commons Trust proposal project - resources and notes …)

Hi Kylie, thanks for the welcome wagon :).

I think the assessments of yourself and JMG are largely in line with one another - he does emphasise that our reliance upon advanced technology, fossil fuels, complex globalised networks of resource distribution and our resulting inadequacies as individuals make us more prone to systemic crises than our forebears. Ultimately you’re right though - he surmises that patterns in societal decline and reconfiguration will roughly mirror those that have presented themselves in the past.

I imagine that this is more a product of his knowledge of esoteric practices than it is a failure to recognise or accept the fragility of our existing situation, however. As an occultist who’s made a longstanding commitment to the study of intuitive divination practices, I’m sure that he bases his assessment of our predicament on the application of these tools as much as he does on the rational analysis of cold, hard data.

Of course, this won’t fill a lot of people with confidence, but my own exploration of these methods (and spiritual work in general) has more than convinced me of their efficacy - and my inquiries lead me (tentatively) to the same conclusion. Humanity’s in schtuck - no doubt about that - but I believe that it will go on (possibly because imminent shocks will deplete the population and scupper our ability to pursue activities endangering the inter-species community as a whole before they take down the entire biosphere; forcing the remaining population to adapt to a new way of life).

As far as the Global Commons Trust is concerned, that seems like an extremely valuable goal worthy of pursuit. I must admit to some cynicism regarding our ability to maintain large-scale, complex systems in the face of such unprecedented crises, but as the old adage goes ‘hope for the best and prepare for the worst’. Trying times tend to bring out both the best and the worst in people - I’m sure we’ll see plenty of each in the coming decades, but which will prevail is anybody’s guess.

I believe that we have a moral duty to strive to preserve, proliferate and improve upon the better aspects of our culture at any rate, regardless of how likely those efforts are to succeed - so I will look at this in more depth and pass on any thoughts that come to mind :).

I’m inclined to agree that this is the most likely outcome, although I also have to admit to being more motivated to action by the lower probability but greater impact risk of us taking down the entire biosphere than I am by the loss of our current model of civilisation.

Yes, I too am dubious about our ability to maintain large-scale complex systems in the face of crises. :neutral_face:

On the most positive side, I think something like a Global Commons Trust, if set up in time, might just help us transition to a new ecologically-sound thriveable paradigm prior to uncontrolled collapse. On a less positive note, I think it would be nice – if at all possible – to at least get the concept/model of stewardship of commons seeded into our collective conscious before collapse, so humanity has a better basis for rebuilding.

I agree - on all counts! (I especially like the part about seeding the notion of commons stewardship into the collective consciousness - even if it isn’t possible to maintain high tech communications networks this could still prompt the development of cooperatively managed resources on some scale).

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Problem is, that if you don’t, you are or will become “surplus to requirements”.

Hmm … I don’t think anyone is suggesting anything else. Obviously some form of adaptation to changing conditions is critical.

That said, in posting this topic under the “Wicked Challenges” category, I really wasn’t seeking a ‘pithy motivational quote’ type of answer. I was attempting to encourage thoughts and questions which might help us explore the underlying complexity:

I’ll take a small swing at it myself, to hopefully get us back into the complexity a bit.

There’s a metaphor I like to use when thinking of how social contracts might work: Our species as a single organism, with each cell in that organism representing one human being.

For example:

Would it make sense to demand that a cell perform its work before it gets the nutrients it needs to do so?

  • This is what our ‘embedded social contract of exchanging work for an entitlement to share in society’s resources’ effectively does. “You have to work to ‘earn’ a living!”

Would we say that only those cells which stay in one location, performing a specialised role (like a liver cell, say) deserve to get certain nutrients which all cells (including white blood cells which travel around) actually need in order to perform their roles?

  • This is what happens when we tie ‘benefits’ (such as health care in the US) to only salaried jobs, and leave ‘gig workers’ to figure them all out for themselves.