Predictions for the future of work can make grim reading – depending on your point of view. Many of our jobs are being automated out of existence, however, it looks like we will have a lot more free time.

Writer and Doctor of Philosophy, Tim Dunlop, says people and governments are going to have to rethink how we support ourselves when there isn’t enough paid work to go around.

Dunlop does not ascribe to the view often put forward by economists that technology will generate enough jobs to replace the ones that are destroyed by robotics and artificial intelligence.

“I don’t know if that’s necessarily true in the medium term… I think there’s going to be a really nasty transition for more than a generation,” says Dunlop, the author of Why the Future is Workless and The Future of Everything.

“We are going through this huge period of transition at the moment and we don’t really know where it’s heading. We’re at the bottom of the curve, in terms of what [new technologies] are going to be capable of.”

Dunlop says framing question around the future of work as “will a robot take my job?”, is reductive. Instead, we should be looking at what sort of job will be available and what the conditions will be for the jobs that are offered.

“If we are working less hours, or there is less work, or the economy just needs fewer people, and then we don’t have a technology problem, we’ve got a distribution problem,” he says.

The “hollowing out” of the job market means that middle-skilled jobs are disappearing because they can be automated. Trying to “upskill” people who have been displaced, or redirect them into jobs that need a human touch (such as caring jobs) is not an answer for everyone.

“Not everybody can have a high-skill, high-paid sort of job. You need those middle-level jobs as well. And if you don’t have those, then society’s got a problem.” he says.

Dunlop says one way of addressing the issue is a universal basic income: where everybody gets a standard payment to cover their basic needs.

“I don’t think you can rely on wages to distribute wealth in an equitable way, in the way that might have been in the recent past,” he says.

The idea of a Universal Basic Income has been around since the 16th Century and is unconditional – not based on household income.

In Australia, the single-person pension (now just over $24,000 per annum) might be seen as an appropriate level of payment, according to Dunlop, in an article written for the Inside Story  website.

“It is basic also in the sense that it provides an income floor below which no one can fall. The payment is unconditional in that no one has to fulfil any obligations in order to receive it, and even if you earn other income you’re still eligible. That makes it universal, equally available to the poorest member of society as it is to the start-up billionaire,” he writes.

Much of the discomfort often voiced about such a scheme centres around the idea that people are being paid to “do nothing” and that it removes the incentive to work.

However, trials show that in developing countries, people use the money to improve their situation, starting businesses, sending children to school and avoiding prostitution. In Europe and Canada, people receiving the payment tend to stay in their jobs and entrepreneurship increases.

Trials of the Universal Basic Income are now taking place globally – from Switzerland to Canada to Kenya – but most are limited to the unemployed or financially needy, rather than being universal.

Dunlop says that, rather than worrying about whether people “deserve” the payment, we should accept the concept of “shared citizenship”. Whether we do paid work, or not, we are all contributing to the overall wealth of society.

Inequality comes when wealth gets divided up by those who do work that is paid and those who own the means of production. With a Universal Basic Income, everybody’s contribution is valued and people get a benefit from the roles they play in the formal and informal economy, he says.

So what will we be doing in the future if we are not doing paid work? Dunlop says we will still have our hobbies, passions and families – and we can derive just as much (if not more) meaning from those things as we do from our jobs.

We are already seeing evidence of efforts to reduce the hours of work, with companies trying four-day work weeks (paid for five), the Swedish Government trialling a six-hour workday, a French law banning work emails after hours.

Dunlop says a “work ethic” culture makes it hard for these reforms to succeed and unions tend to see a push for reduced hours as a “trojan horse” threat of increasing casualisation and insecure work.

“That’s where things like the French rule about emails probably comes in handy. It sets some parameters around what society sees as acceptable and maybe it needs some government leadership in this area.”

This article was originally written for The Ethics Alliance. Find out more about this corporate membership program. Already a member? Log in to the membership portal for more content and tools here.

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