Most of us have wondered what we might do if we didn’t need to work – if we woke up one morning to discover we had won the lottery, say. We entertain ourselves with visions of multiple homes, trips around the world or the players we would sign after buying Arsenal. For many of us, the most tantalising aspect of such visions is the freedom it would bring: to do what one wants, when one wants and how one wants.
But imagine how that vision might change if such freedom were extended to everyone. Some day, probably not in our lifetimes but perhaps not long after, machines will be able to do most of the tasks that people can. At that point, a truly workless world should be possible. If everyone, not just the rich, had robots at their beck and call, then such powerful technology would free them from the need to submit to the realities of the market to put food on the table.
Of course, we then have to figure out what to do not only with ourselves but with one another. Just as a lottery cheque does not free the winner from the shackles of the human condition, all-purpose machine intelligence will not magically allow us all to get along. And what is especially tricky about a world without work is that we must begin building the social institutions to survive it long before the technological obsolescence of human workers actually arrives.
Despite impressive progress in robotics and machine intelligence, those of us alive today can expect to keep on labouring until retirement. But while Star Trek-style replicators and robot nannies remain generations away, the digital revolution is nonetheless beginning to wreak havoc. Economists and politicians have puzzled over the struggles workers have experienced in recent decades: the pitiful rate of growth in wages, rising inequality, and the growing flow of national income to profits and rents rather than pay cheques. The primary culprit is technology. The digital revolution has helped supercharge globalisation, automated routine jobs, and allowed small teams of highly skilled workers to manage tasks that once required scores of people. The result has been a glut of labour that economies have struggled to digest.
Labour markets have coped the only way they are able: workers needing jobs have little option but to accept dismally low wages. Bosses shrug and use people to do jobs that could, if necessary, be done by machines. Big retailers and delivery firms feel less pressure to turn their warehouses over to robots when there are long queues of people willing to move boxes around for low pay. Law offices put off plans to invest in sophisticated document scanning and analysis technology because legal assistants are a dime a dozen. People continue to staff checkout counters when machines would often, if not always, be just as good. Ironically, the first symptoms of a dawning era of technological abundance are to be found in the growth of low-wage, low-productivity employment. And this mess starts to reveal just how tricky the construction of a workless world will be. The most difficult challenge posed by an economic revolution is not how to come up with the magical new technologies in the first place; it is how to reshape society so that the technologies can be put to good use while also keeping the great mass of workers satisfied with their lot in life. So far, we are failing.
Preparing for a world without work means grappling with the roles work plays in society, and finding potential substitutes. First and foremost, we rely on work to distribute purchasing power: to give us the dough to buy our bread. Eventually, in our distant Star Trek future, we might get rid of money and prices altogether, as soaring productivity allows society to provide people with all they need at near-zero cost.
For a good while longer, wages will continue to be the main way people come by money, and prices will be needed to ration access to scarce goods and services. But in the absence of any broader social change, pushing people out of work will simply redirect the flow of income from workers to firm-owners: the rich will get richer. Freeing people from work without social collapse will therefore require society to find ways other than pay for labour to channel money to those not on the job. People might come to receive more of their income in the form of state-led redistribution: through the payment of a basic income, for instance, or direct public provision of services such as education, healthcare and housing. Or, perhaps, everyone could be given a capital allotment at birth.
These sorts of arrangements don’t magically materialise as machines become more powerful. They must be brought into existence through political action. And that’s where things start to get complicated. One problem is that large-scale social overhaul takes a long time to emerge and have an effect. Another is that money for nothing is not necessarily what the displaced masses are interested in.
Ongoing political debates illustrate the problem. There are lots of ways a government could boost workers’ pay. It could raise the minimum wage, increase wage subsidies, enact a basic income, or use more heavy-handed regulation to protect industries and force firms to share more of their profits with labourers. Tellingly, workers and trade unions seem least interested in the policies, such as a basic income, that break the link between compensation and work. This makes the building of our eventual utopia tricky; a hefty rise in the minimum wage would benefit lots of workers, but it would also discourage some firms from using the cheap labour they have been soaking up, forcing the jobless to get along in a world in which they cannot find work yet also lack the monetary means to stay out of poverty.
Workers’ preferences are easy to understand. Work is not just a means for distributing purchasing power. It is also among the most important sources of identity and purpose in individuals’ lives. If the role of work in society is to shrink, other sources of purpose and identity will need to grow. Some people will manage to find these things for themselves: pursuing passions too uneconomic to live on or engaging in voluntarism, just as many retirees find satisfying ways to fill their days. But others will find themselves at a loss.
Workers are sure to feel uncomfortable with reforms designed to clear a path to their own economic irrelevance. They are not the only ones likely to object. Redistribution implies taking as well as giving. And while some tech entrepreneurs seem to be warming to the idea of something like a universal basic income, perhaps seeing it as a moral licence to disrupt, the reservoir of resentment at those perceived to be getting too good a deal from the government never runs dry. Rich Americans are already annoyed enough at the “takers” among their countrymen, those Mitt Romney labelled an incorrigible 47% in his 2012 campaign for the presidency, who pay no federal income tax – even though most work, pay other taxes, and are simply too poor to owe any income tax to the federal government. The haves who will inevitably provide a disproportionate share of the funding for future welfare states will need convincing to part with their cash.
So societies might decide that people must be made to contribute in some way to the community to qualify for state support. Those not in work, for example, might have to participate in community service or other activity. Another approach might be more seductive. Those still in work might be less grumpy about funding a more generous welfare state if beneficiaries are deemed to be enough like them: fellow tribesmen, people of similar background and therefore felt to be deserving of charity.
Around the rich world, it is interesting to note that it is not so much the generosity of state redistribution that is provoking societal unrest, but the fact that out groups – from Latinos to Poles to refugees –are grabbing a share.
Building a workless utopia in which wealth is broadly shared, people are mostly satisfied with their lot in life, and the peace isn’t kept by excluding any inconvenient foreigners, is no easy task. The grappling has already begun, and the initial rounds of negotiation are more than a little discouraging. Two centuries from now, I am confident, we will have worked everything out splendidly. Assuming, that is, that those of us alive now can manage the first painful steps without wrecking the world in the process.