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The rise of automated labour calls for a new approach to welfare

ByMartin Greenacre

Mar 1, 2017

In January 2017, Finland launched a nation-wide experiment in which 2,000 unemployed Finns will receive €560 per month and will continue to do so even if they find a job. The same month, councils in Fife and Glasgow expressed an interest in creating pilot schemes to test the viability of a universal basic income. The ideal of a universal income is that every adult, whether they are employed or not, should be paid a basic monthly payment from the state. It cannot come soon enough.

Part of the rationale behind such schemes is the looming prospect of job losses due to automation. In his 2013 book The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, Al Gore identified “robosourcing” as a new phenomenon which would significantly alter the distribution of jobs in the future. Just as outsourcing continues to shift jobs around the globe, robosourcing is the process by which machines come to fulfil the tasks once undertaken by paid human workers. This is usually seen as a negative trend. Indeed, the results, we are told, would be bleak, ushering in a period of mass unemployment and increasing the strain on nations’ already-wheezing welfare systems. But there was a time when machines were seen as the answer to our problems. They would do the heavy labour and allow us more time to devote to our own self-development and hobbies. This should still be our goal, but it would require a radical change in the way we view employment and welfare.

One public figure who has recently proposed a solution to the silent rise of machine labour has been Benoît Hamon, the socialist candidate in France’s upcoming presidential elections. His vision is one which combines a universal basic income with a reduced working week and a tax on robots. It is a radical proposition, and focuses unapologetically on the future.

The problem at the moment is that robosourcing does provide benefits – but those benefits are felt exclusively by the businesses which use such machines. Every time a supermarket replaces a cashier with a self-service machine, it saves another wage packet; but where does that money go? It is only fair that part of the money gained from replacing a worker with a robot should go towards providing social security for said former worker.

A 2013 paper by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne at the University of Oxford argued that 47 per cent of occupational categories are at risk of being replaced by automated machines in the coming decades. To refuse to adapt our welfare systems in response to this trend is to ignore the changing realities of the technological landscape. Contrary to what some commentators seem to believe, a tax on robots is not just a ploy to discourage the use of new technologies and allow European nations to be overtaken by developing nations. In fact, it could actually facilitate the development of new technologies, and allow less work to be shared more evenly across the population.

The solution to the automation of jobs is not to presume that the increased profits provided by robots will somehow trickle down and compensate for workers who have lost their jobs. The solution might be a tax on robots and a universal basic income. Then again, it might not. The important thing is that there are people thinking about these challenges, and proposing creative solutions. There is, of course, an element of utopian thinking to all of this. But in an age which feels increasingly like a dystopia, we could do with a bit of positive thinking.


Image: Siemens Pressbilde

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