Automation,Work and Citizen’s Income

The world of work is in a constant state of flux. The type of work we do, the skills required, who does the work and where that work gets done are all perpetually changing, and this change is often driven by huge factors beyond any individual’s control.

In this article we argue that we may not be able to control how these forces affect us individually, but through a Citizen’s Basic Income we can, as a society, make sure that those who are adversely affected do not fall into destitution as a result.

Relentless Change

A few decades ago it was globalisation grabbing the headlines when it came to the changing landscape of work. Thanks to advances in communications and transport, and to global trade liberalisation measures, entire industries were being transferred from one country to another, often to places where the cost of labour was cheaper. This happened both in manufacturing and the service sector (e.g. call centres). This is a trend that continues to this day.

More recently, the headline-grabber has been the pace of technological change and its effect on jobs, as new technologies like robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning find their way into more and more areas of human endeavour. Hardly a day seems to go by without a news story of yet another example of machines replacing humans at some task or other.

Historically, people have always worried about technological progress destroying jobs. For example the word luddite, meaning someone who is opposed to technological change, came to us via a group of 19th century textile workers who went around destroying the new-fangled mechanical looms that they claimed were putting them out of work.

The further claim in this 21st-century wave of automation-driven changes to the world of work is that it is no longer the blue-collar jobs (like the textile workers of old) that are at risk, but that the stunning advances in the ability of computers to gather and process vast amounts of data are also putting white-collar jobs, like medicine and law, at risk.

Furthermore, as the technology improves, other circumstances are accelerating these trends towards more automation. The current coronavirus pandemic (with its social distancing strictures and lockdown rules) has sent executives in many sectors (like hotels and the restaurant industry) scrambling to find ways for non-humans to do what the locked-down humans cannot do, for example serving food or doing room service.

There is evidence from previous experiences to show that, once humans vacate the jobs and the robots come in, even if circumstances change the humans will not be going back to those jobs.

Where are the jobs?

Whether technological advance creates more jobs than it destroys or vice versa is a hotly contested issue. Some studies suggest that more jobs are created than destroyed by technological change. This study by consultancy Deloitte claims, after studying 140 years of UK census data, that technology is a job creation engine. “Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labour than at any time in the last 150 years”, they argue.

For example, the study finds that in 1901 there were 200,000 people in the UK washing clothes (out of a population of 32 million). By 2011, with a population of 56.1 million just 35,000 people worked in the sector. Indoor plumbing and mass produced washing machines put paid to most of those jobs. Meanwhile, there has been a massive increase in nursing and teaching jobs over similar periods. All of these jobs have been traditionally done by women, so arguably the washerwomen of old are the nurses and teachers of today.

More directly, the invention of the internal combustion engine gave rise to the mass-produced cars which destroyed large swathes of jobs in and around the horse-drawn carriage industry (like stable-boys and farriers). But that particular technological advance created far more jobs than it ever destroyed, many of them in sectors (like, say, roadside petrol stations) that did not even exist before.

But other equally serious work argues that this time it is different. In this study, professor Erik Brynjolfsson of the MIT Sloan School of Management, claims that since 2000, technological change has been destroying jobs faster than creating them.

He says that the strong correlation that has historically existed between jobs and productivity (the more you have of one, the more you get of the other) has been “uncoupling” since the start of the millennium, and that he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

Arguments like prof Brynjolfsson’s give rise to other claims, this time not just about the numbers of jobs we have, but about the quality and remuneration of those jobs. As more and more work is automated, the argument goes, humans are not only needed less (so there is less work) but even when they are needed their contribution to the creation of value is smaller (so there is less remuneration and more precarious employment). Meanwhile, those who own the value-creating robots become even richer. And so there is a triple whammy of rising unemployment, stagnating wages for insecure jobs, and growing inequality.

Whether or not this time technological change will end up destroying more jobs than it creates, the fact remains that all this change creates disruption to livelihoods and working patterns, as well as creating individual winners and losers.

Even if being a washerwoman was hard, physical work, it probably wasn’t much fun finding yourself replaced by a washing machine when you were in your fifties. Or being a farrier out of work and with the wrong skills (or in the wrong place) to participate in the newly emerging motor car economy.

That will not be any different this time around.

Resisting technological change is probably not a good idea. For one, the experience of the Luddites shows that it doesn’t work. Perhaps more importantly, technological innovation has brought many, many advantages to the way we live and the quality of our lives. On a global scale, despite the problems we still have and the challenges we face, we have made astonishing advances in wellbeing and quality of life. We want to keep all these benefits while trying to mitigate the downsides.

So instead of resisting change, perhaps it is better to try to ensure that as we hurtle through it we try to make sure that we smooth the way as much as possible for everyone, so that when some of us find ourselves on the losing side of the race, it does not spell personal disaster.

Looking after everyone

We think that Universal Basic Income (UBI, also referred to as a Citizen’s Income) is one way to help people navigate the uncertainties of technological change and the constantly shifting work landscapes. We also think that it will help to reduce the growing inequality which is, at least in part, being exacerbated by the pace of technological change.

A Citizen’s Income is a simple concept: A regular payment to all citizens, no questions asked. Everyone gets it as a right of citizenship.

A Citizen’s Basic Income is:

  • Unconditional: A Citizen’s Basic Income would vary with age, but there would be no other conditions: so everyone of the same age would receive the same Citizen’s Basic Income, whatever their gender, employment status, family structure, contribution to society, housing costs, or anything else.
  • Automatic: Someone’s Citizen’s Basic Income would be paid weekly or monthly, automatically.
  • Nonwithdrawable: Citizen’s Basic Incomes would not be means-tested. If someone’s earnings or wealth increased, then their Citizen’s Basic Income would not change.
  • Individual: Citizen’s Basic Incomes would be paid on an individual basis, and not on the basis of a couple or household.
  • As a right of citizenship: Everybody legally resident in the UK would receive a Citizen’s Basic Income, subject to a minimum period of legal residency in the UK, and continuing residency for most of the year.

Every week, or every month, everyone would receive their Citizen’s Basic Income into their bank account. It would start when they were born, and it would stop when they died.

Read more about Citizen’s Income.

How can a Citizen’s Basic Income help in the face of technological change, increasing automation and shifting work patterns? There are a lot of ways, but here are the main ones:

  1. It is a financial floor below which no one will ever fall, regardless of the shifts in labour markets or work patterns.
  2. It will ensure that no one falls into absolute deprivation as a result of job loss or illness.
    It would support a labour market in which people are free to move flexibly in and out of work, and from job to job.
  3. Because the payment is regular, it would support more entrepreneurial activity, since people would not be risking their financial or domestic security while they establish a new business.
  4. It would support retraining in the wake of job automation, because individuals would be able to have a predictable income while they retrain.
  5. It would help to reduce inequality. Even though everyone gets the payment, whether rich or poor, those who don’t need it (those who are considered rich by society) pay it back through the tax system.
  6. It would recognise the value of forms of work that are not paid. For example, the value of unpaid care of adults is £54 billion, of children £123 billion. This important element of the economy needs to be supported, especially as the need for care rises with an aging population.

If you want to know more about how a Citizen’s Income can help support people in the face of automation and an ever-changing employment landscape, why don’t you browse our section on this topic?

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