We have a crisis of work. The secure, well-paid jobs of the past — many of them in manufacturing — are disappearing. What is replacing them is insecurity and uncertainty. Low-paid, part-time, temporary and seasonal work. The “feast or famine” of self-employment. The so-called “sharing economy”, where people rent out their possessions for a pittance. The “gig economy”, where people are paid performance by performance — or piece by piece. “Piecework”, we used to call it. Perhaps we should rediscover this name.
Piecework has been the lot of most humans throughout history. Secure full-time jobs for wages have existed for less than a hundred years. And they were never available to everyone. In the post-war “golden age” of manufacturing to which many would like to return, most men had secure full-time jobs — but women did not. My father left school at 16 and went to work for an insurance company. He stayed with that company for his entire working life, finally retiring at 65. But my mother had a succession of part-time, low-paid jobs. Her educational level was higher than my father’s, but her jobs were menial and insecure, while his was intellectual and secure.
I have inhabited the “gig economy” for over thirty years. I listen with some amusement to the complaints of those for whom this is a wholly new way of working, since musicians and artists have always lived from performance to performance, and I have been a professional musician for half my life. But even in my banking career, I often worked on short-term contracts, and on the odd occasion when I was employed, my job often lasted no longer than a contract. And now, as a freelance writer, I’m doing piecework.
I know what income insecurity feels like. I have experienced the embarrassment of having to borrow money from friends and family to pay essential bills, because payment for work done three months ago still has not arrived. I know how difficult it is to feed your family when you have less than £5 left in the bank and no prospect of extending your overdraft. I live with the ignominy of a wrecked credit rating because I was forced to default on a debt when a promised payment failed to arrive. True, I earn more than my mother ever did, and probably more than the majority of what Guy Standing calls the “precariat”. But the problem is not the amount you earn. It is the mismatch between uncertain income and certain outgoings.
When income is uncertain, but outgoings are certain, constant worry about where the money will come from to pay the bills eats away at the mind, destroying creativity and turning the intellect to porridge. It undermines relationships and erodes happiness. Ultimately, it wrecks physical and mental health. And yet we seem intent upon increasing income insecurity in the name of “efficiency”.
In the “dual labour markets” of Japan and southern European countries, older men have secure, skilled, well-paid jobs for life, while women and younger men have insecure, low-paid, low-skilled jobs. But in America and Britain, where labour markets are deregulated, this distinction is fast disappearing as manufacturing jobs are outsourced to developing countries and routine skilled jobs are automated away. The labour market “reforms” beloved of institutions such as the IMF level the playing field for insecure workers not by making them more secure, but by destroying the security of those in employment.
The scream of outrage from America’s white working/middle class that led to the election of Donald Trump is to a large extent about the disappearance of men’s secure, well-paid jobs and the erosion of comfortable middle-class lifestyles. And the scream is as much from women as men. Even today, despite the advancement of women’s equality, many women depend on their men for financial support, especially when the children are young. They can cope with their own income insecurity if their menfolk have steady wages. Life is very tough for families when neither women nor men have certainty of income.
Many people want to restore the secure waged jobs of the past — to resurrect manufacturing and bring back mining. So, Donald Trump promises to rescue the American coal industry. “I love those people”, he cries. But just as the Luddites were wrong in the nineteenth century, those who want to turn back the clock are wrong now. Holding back technological progress by preserving the jobs and the industries of the past only creates the illusion of security — and it is not sustainable. Just as the prehistoric inhabitants of Doggerland were unable to stem the rising tide that would eventually inundate those lands, forcing the people to leave, so the tide of technology will eventually swamp all barriers.
Robots will indeed take many of our jobs. Mind-numbing, repetitive jobs. We seem to like forcing people into jobs like this rather than allowing them to look for — or create — work that better suits their skills and abilities. But manufacturing no longer needs armies of drone workers on production lines, all doing the same thing day in, day out. Robots can do this far better than humans.
It is economically inefficient for humans to do jobs that could be better done by machines, and it is a shocking waste of human talent. People excel at activities that involve communication, imagination and problem-solving. They add more value to society — though not necessarily in monetary terms — in their spare time than they ever do at work. So bring on the robots, and let the humans go to the pub. That’s where new ideas are generated, new connections made, new enterprises started.
Other industries will be superseded. Renewable energy sources, for example, are fast replacing fossil fuels: Donald Trump’s beloved coal industry is already obsolete, and apart from those who work in that industry, few will regret its passing. Mining is a dangerous, dirty and degrading industry which has killed thousands of people. Why do we want to preserve an industry like this, just because it has historically provided secure jobs for men?
To my mind, the real issue here is not what jobs people do, but how they can have the security they so desperately need. If we are to embrace technological change, we need to take seriously people’s need for a financial “anchor”, a rock, a safe place, an income which will ensure that they can survive regardless of the work they do.
Security of income does not have to come from work. Indeed, as work becomes ever more uncertain and insecure, more and more people will need some other sort of anchor. For the elderly, this is a state pension — yet the right to that is being eroded. For younger people, it is various forms of in-work benefits — yet the right to those, too, is being undermined. We are progressively shredding the safety net that provides people with some protection from instability of income.
No attempt is being made to quantify the cost of the damage to health, well-being and relationships caused by rising insecurity. But those whose relationships break down under financial stress end up in the divorce courts, and for many — particularly women — that means material poverty and a life on benefits. Those whose health is wrecked by overwork end up in doctors’ surgeries or hospitals: many find themselves living on sickness and disability benefits with the support of long-term prescription drugs. And those whose mental health is undermined by constant worry may end up in prison, since chronic underfunding of mental health services means that the prison service has become the backstop for the mentally ill. All of this adds up to increased cost for health and social services, not to mention the prison service, the police and the law courts.
Our crisis of work is causing a crisis of welfare. But all we see is the welfare crisis, and we try to solve it by inventing ever more draconian ways of forcing people into unsuitable and insecure work, rather than by addressing the root cause of the problem: disappearing traditional jobs and growing income uncertainty.
By implementing a universal basic income, we can end the necessity of human drudgery and the wasteful mismatching of people to jobs. We can restore security to the millions who live with uncertainty.
Universal basic income should not be seen as welfare. By itself, it is inadequate to meet all needs: for example, the very disabled need more support than a universal basic income can provide and are less able to top up their income with work. Other measures are needed as well to ensure that those who are marginalised by their inability to work are properly supported. Rather, we should see universal basic income as the foundation on which everything else is built — the level below which no-one will ever have to fall. By solving the problem of income insecurity with a universal basic income, we can end this costly and damaging epidemic of distress.
Providing everyone with a basic income would also help to end the fear of technology that is holding back progress. We do not know what the jobs or the industries of the future will look like. But if we go about this the right way, there could be an explosion of productivity and entrepreneurial activity when humans are freed from drudgery. Universal basic income not only clears the path for robots to take over the jobs that humans don’t want to do (and are not so good at), it also supports those who want to take the risk of trying out something new. People will be more willing to start new enterprises if they know that they will not lose everything if it all goes horribly wrong. The great businesses of the future will be born out of this explosion of experimentation, and they will create products and services we cannot yet imagine.
The way to prosperity is to invest — not only in robots, but in humans too. If we invest in robots but leave humans to scrape an uncertain living from increasingly insecure and poorly paid jobs, it would hardly be surprising if humans rebelled against the robots and their owners. But setting up such unhealthy competition would be destructive both of robots and humans. We don’t want robot wars — we want robot colleagues.
I am amazed when people say we cannot afford universal basic income. To my mind, we cannot afford not to have it. The challenge of technology demands a fundamental reordering of society — a new social contract. By explicitly breaking the link between work and survival, we can free up humans to embrace this wonderful opportunity to reinvent work in our own image.
When we are no longer afraid of losing our prosperity, we can look forward to an exciting future, fully using the creativity and ingenuity that is the birthright of all humans and working productively in happy collaboration with our robot colleagues.
Frances Coppola is a Forbes contributor, occasional FT blogger and author of the Coppola Comment finance & economics blog. Singer, musician and bank refugee.
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