The future of work demands a basic income

Every time we’ve gone through a transition in the way we work, some people have suffered. The end result is better than what came before it, but in the intervening period, the pain of the transition is placed on the backs of average people. There’s no reason to believe the rapid automation of jobs will be any different, but the wealth of Western societies does give us a way to avoid unnecessary suffering.

The initial stages of the transition

Since the recession of 2008–2009, the composition of the job market has changed quite rapidly. Precarity has become the norm for many workers as they’ve had to accept jobs with low pay and no benefits, and this is all a result of the increased pace of automation.

The economy of the United States reached pre-recession levels of production by 2011, but it employed 7 million fewer people to do so.

The New York Times reported that since the recession, businesses were spending 2% more on labour, and 26% more on automation. Employers laid off millions of workers during the recession, so when the time came to expand production once again, they had a choice to make: would they simply hire back all the workers they’d fired, or would they automate as much work as they could to avoid the ongoing cost of labour? Many of them chose the latter, and as a result the kind of jobs that are available have changed significantly.

Since the recession, more people have been pushed into routine, low-wage service work, if they can find a job at all. The kind of jobs we associate with living a good life were hit hard during the recession, as 3.6 million of such positions were lost, and since then only 2.6 million have been added back. However, the ranks of low-wage workers have expanded. While 2 million of those jobs were lost, 3.8 million have since been added. The major difference is that these low-wage sectors rarely come with the same benefits or dependability as middle-class positions, and certainly not the wages.

This expansion in low-wage work has pushed a growing number of workers into a precarious living situation. Their jobs are often temporary or part-time, forcing them to always be searching for new opportunities, and there’s often little consistency in the shifts they receive. Due to their financial insecurity, they often have to take up a second job, and sometimes even a third. All the juggling of their different jobs and shifts just to try to make ends meet leaves them with no time to actually enjoy life or spend time with those they love. They’re too busy to even consider what work-life balance would look like, let alone enjoy it for themselves.

Scott Santens, a basic income advocate, has observed that this is creating a rather nonsensical trend. While the labour force participation rate (the percentage of people actually employed or looking for work) hit a 38-year low of 62.6% in 2014, people who actually have jobs are being forced to work longer hours in order to survive.

The combined effects of technology and the globalization enabled by it are eating jobs, but for those left working — because they are by and large earning less — they actually need to work more. Instead of jobs requiring the 5-6 hours of work a day they actually on average now require instead of 8, we clock in more than 8 hours as a matter of survival. Instead of working one full-time job 40 hours a week, we work one full-time job 47 hours a week to make sure to keep it, or multiple part-time jobs even more than 50 hours per week to compensate for the lower pay.

There’s something fundamentally wrong with this picture. Instead of trying to distribute work in a more even fashion, by reducing the workweek and creating more jobs, we’re allowing people to work gruelling hours because of the low wages they’re being forced to accept in order to have a job, while everyone else has jump through the hoops of the system to get welfare or try to make some money on the black market just to survive, if they can survive at all.

The masses shouldn’t have to suffer just because our economic system is going through its next evolutionary phase. The West has the wealth to provide dignity and financial security to those who are suffering, and it should do so as soon as possible, because the situation will only become more dire as further sectors are automated.

A vision for the future

The focus of our political discourse, particularly in the wake of the recession of 2008–2009 has been laser focused on jobs. Interestingly, we’ve been much more focused on creating jobs—and forcing those without jobs to find them—than considering their quality and necessity.

What’s the point of forcing a human to do work that can be done by a robot?

We have a rare opportunity to alter the way we work, and to lift everyone in our societies from poverty. It’s an opportunity we must take. The job is currently the most important signifier of someone’s social status, but is that a healthy way to structure our lives? Many of the jobs we work are monotonous and provide little personal fulfillment. We make it almost criminal to be poor and jobless, without considering the numerous factors that lead people to such a life.

Fewer people have jobs, but those who do are working longer hours to survive. Instead of pressuring people into jobs just so they can earn the income necessary to survive, we should free people from this burden so they can flourish. Our ultimate goal should be to rid ourselves of bullshit jobs, and to do so, there are three actions that must be taken.

Firstly, we must incentivize the automation of work in a fashion where the gains are collectivized, not privatized. Everyone should benefit from a reduction in the amount of work needed for society to function, not just the wealthy capitalists who own the shops, factories, and other places we work. We shouldn’t try to fight automation, but promote it once we find a framework to ensure it doesn’t just increase corporate profits, but improves the well-being of all.

Secondly, we must progressively reduce the working week. The work that needs to be done for society to function must be distributed to as many people as possible, not only to spread the burden, but to foster a collective movement behind the project. Once paired with automation, this will ensure the amount of work each person must perform will be reduced so they have much more time to enjoy their lives.

John Maynard Keynes believed that we would have a 15-hour workweek by now, but clearly that hasn’t come to pass. Instead, there’s been a vast expansion in the number of bullshit jobs that need to be performed, where much of our time is spent in meetings and playing on social media while we wait for the workday to end. David Graeber, who coined the term “bullshit jobs”, has observed that

Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away […] But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.

Thirdly, we need to adopt a universal basic income to lift everyone out of poverty and provide financial security to the masses at a time of economic upheaval. Every time there’s an economic transition, some people inevitably suffer, but that needn’t be the case during the coming one. If we want this transition to occur quickly, it only makes sense to provide financial security to the masses who will make it possible.

There will also be some uncertainty while we figure out how people will survive once the working week is reduced through automation and the spreading of work to more people. A basic income would begin the transition away from our dependence on an income tied to work to a world where we recognize everyone’s right to survive without submitting to wage slavery.

We only live once, so why should our lives be spent toiling unnecessarily when much of the work we currently perform isn’t fulfilling, is often unnecessary, and will soon be able to be automated. What if we were able to use that time to do the things we enjoy and see the people we love, instead of trying to fit the most important aspects of our lives around our working schedules?

We must renew our ability to demand a better world. We act as though the 40-hour workweek and our current work relations are set in stone, but we have the power to change them, just as we once fought to achieve them. The time has come for another revolution in the way we work; one where the working week is radically reduced, and the link between work and income is severed. There will be pushback from the wealthy elite, but once the masses are unified behind a common goal, nothing can stop them.


Paris Marx is the author of A Music Industry for the 99% and Dystopia or Utopia?. He writes about the growing divide within the capitalist system, movements for alternative forms of economic organization, and ways of living that challenge traditional narratives.

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