Let's Think

Could ‘jobless world’ destroy the human soul?

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As the Fourth Industrial Revolution steams ahead, with some serious social problems trailing it, just about the only plan yet to lift millions out of poverty could rob humanity of its soul.

The picture of the quality of life for billions of people across the globe for some time to come does not look rosy. It is actually a pretty dim picture that emerged from last week’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in picturesque Davos in the Swiss Alps, as we report elsewhere.

It’s a story of a jobless world, of ‘life without work’, of poverty for billions, of growing income inequality and a class divide between a ‘skilled elite and an unskilled underclass’.

It is a world created by what has become known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or FIR.

This situation will prevail until normal economic forces have caught up with creating new kinds of jobs to replace those destroyed by information technology-driven automation and for education and training institutions to adapt to skilling people for these new jobs.

According to the US job website, Adzuna, around one-in-11 vacancies currently advertised are likely to be obsolete by 2035.

How fundamental, broad, and radical this transition is, is illustrated by the following quote from an article on the Converge website:

“… with the new computer technologies it is possible to eliminate sound stages, sets, even actors, and replace them with ‘synthespians’, which are “created from libraries of gestures and expressions housed in a computer bank. Already, Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong, Cary Grant and Gene Kelley have been digitised and put back to work in new television commercials.”

It also tells us that “even the art of book writing itself is falling victim to intelligent machines. Using software equipped with artificial intelligence, Scott Finch was able to program his Macintosh computer to pump out three quarters of the prose in a torrid potboiler entitled Just This Once”.

Changing economic environment

The first challenge, however, during this transition to a post-FIR world, that does not have a name yet, is to cushion billions of people, unable to fend for themselves through normal work, against abject poverty and hunger. As my late father would have put it, to make it possible for them to “keep body and soul together”.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that mere economic growth, in the terms it is presently defined and/or formulated, is not enough and does not trickle down sufficiently. Neither will a simple adherence to the ideologies of socialism or free market capitalism do the trick.

Socialism has in fairly recent history, failed spectacularly and was convincingly ‘defeated’ at the end of the Cold War late in the previous century.

As for capitalism and the free market, the huge advantages brought by the FIR’s improved productivity and labour cost saving, almost exclusively goes to corporate shareholders via improved profit margins.

This phenomenon and the threats it poses to social stability, is well illustrated in an article on the Business Insider website, which states: “Work is one of the core institutions that holds our society together. It serves two purposes: It provides people with the income they need to support themselves and their families, and it provides a sense of purpose in life and society.

“Over the past four decades, work has become less effective as a way to provide income, because wage growth has lagged behind economic growth and wages themselves have become more unequal across the skills spectrum.”

A May 2011 research article found that “the established link between economic growth and job creation hasn’t held up lately, during either up or down periods. And in both cases, it’s the jobs side that has lagged.”

At least part of the explanation for this lies in the increased value weight of purely financial transactions, included in the calculation of both economic growth and GDP.

Other common strategies – for instance, some of the tax breaks for businesses – see generated growth rather invested in machines than the creation of jobs.

Also read: WEF brings no plan to stop brewing revolt

Only plan in town

At this stage the only plan in town to cushion those unable to work from dropping into absolute poverty that has been gaining traction since 2013, and not a new one, is called a Universal Basic Income (UBI) government policy.

It is not a new concept and goes back more than 200 years to the late 1790s when American statesman Thomas Paine called for a universal payment of £15 per year to all his countrymen in exchange for the right to hold private property. 

In 2013 Oxford economists Frey and Osborne produced a paper that predicted that 50% of existing jobs in the modern economy will become at risk of computerisation. Since, it has become a popular topic for discussion across all economic ideological divides because of its central premise that subsistence can be divorced from the need to work for a wage.

Generally the notion is that everyone gets UBI, whether they work or not, but all other social grants like social pensions, health care and child support grants fall away, as is the case with bureaucratic heavy measures like a ‘means test’.

Capitalists strongly in favour of such a system points to neighbouring Namibia where it is argued: “The village school reported higher attendance rates and … the children were better fed and more attentive. Police statistics showed a 36.5% drop in crime since the introduction of the grants.

“Poverty rates declined from 86% to 68% (97% to 43% when controlled for migration). Unemployment dropped as well, from 60% to 45%, and there was a 29% increase in average earned income, excluding the basic income grant.

“These results indicate that basic income grants can not only alleviate poverty in purely economic terms, but may also jolt the poor out of the poverty cycle, helping them find work, start their own businesses, and attend school.”

In Europe, Finland very recently announced it will be conducting an experiment, providing an UBI to 2 000 randomly selected welfare recipients through to 2018. Economists and policy formulators on this front will eagerly await the results from the Nordic country.

What about the soul?

Opponents of the idea mainly point to the psychological and social implications of totally delinking work from survival. While the pro-UBI lobby argues that it would “promote thinkers, tinkerers, and idea makers to continue in higher education, and become the global leaders who bring about the next best age for our world”, critics argue that work creates a sense of purpose in life and society.

It would take away one of the most important incentives to improve oneself, also to the benefit of one’s family and society. And what will people do with all their free time?

Some economists argue that a UBI amounts to just throwing money at a problem without offering any real solution, claiming a job guarantee program would be a better option.

That, however, brings a harvest of its own problems like cost and economic structural implications and socio-political dangers like entrenching class division between elite workers and unskilled essential labourers.

We think

We think the time has come for us to get off our ideological high horses, be it pure free market capitalism or worker power socialism, and seek common middle ground with a passion.

And, above all, we need to revisit policies regarding education and training to make sure the next generation is equipped to deal with the challenges of the unfolding new epoch in human history.

by Piet Coetzer

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