There is growing concern worldwide about the rise of automation, and about the looming mass unemployment that will logically result from it. In particular, the phenomenon of driverless cars – which will otherwise be one of the coolest and the most beneficial technologies of our time – is virtually guaranteed to relegate to the dustbin of history the "paid human driver", a vocation currently pursued by over 10 million people in the US alone.
Them robots are gonna take our jobs!
Image source: Day of the Robot.
Most discussion of late seems to treat this encroaching joblessness entirely as an economic issue. Families without incomes, spiralling wealth inequality, broken taxation mechanisms. And, consequently, the solutions being proposed are mainly economic ones. For example, a Universal Basic Income to help everyone make ends meet. However, in my opinion, those economic issues are actually relatively easy to address, and as a matter of sheer necessity we will sort them out sooner or later, via a UBI or via whatever else fits the bill.
The more pertinent issue is actually a social and a psychological one. Namely: how will people keep themselves occupied in such a world? How will people nourish their ambitions, feel that they have a purpose in life, and feel that they make a valuable contribution to society? How will we prevent the malaise of despair, depression, and crime from engulfing those who lack gainful enterprise? To borrow the colourful analogy that others have penned: assuming that there's food on the table either way, how do we head towards a Star Trek rather than a Mad Max future?
The truth is, since the Industrial Revolution, an ever-expanding number of people haven't really needed to work anyway. What I mean by that is: if you think about what jobs are actually about providing society with the essentials such as food, water, shelter, and clothing, you'll quickly realise that fewer people than ever are employed in such jobs. My own occupation, web developer, is certainly not essential to the ongoing survival of society as a whole. Plenty of other occupations, particularly in the services industry, are similarly remote from humanity's basic needs.
So why do these jobs exist? First and foremost, demand. We live in a world of free markets and capitalism. So, if enough people decide that they want web apps, and those people have the money to make it happen, then that's all that's required for "web developer" to become and to remain a viable occupation. Second, opportunity. It needs to be possible to do that thing known as "developing web apps" in the first place. In many cases, the opportunity exists because of new technology; in my case, the Internet. And third, ambition. People need to have a passion for what they do. This means that, ideally, people get to choose an occupation of their own free will, rather than being forced into a certain occupation by their family or by the government. If a person has a natural talent for his or her job, and if a person has a desire to do the job well, then that benefits the profession as a whole, and, in turn, all of society.
Those are the practical mechanisms through which people end up spending much of their waking life at work. However, there's another dimension to all this, too. It is very much in the interest of everyone that makes up "the status quo" – i.e. politicians, the police, the military, heads of big business, and to some extent all other "well to-do citizens" – that most of society is caught up in the cycle of work. That's because keeping people busy at work is the most effective way of maintaining basic law and order, and of enforcing control over the masses. We have seen throughout history that large-scale unemployment leads to crime, to delinquency and, ultimately, to anarchy. Traditionally, unemployment directly results in poverty, which in turn directly results in hunger. But even if the unemployed get their daily bread – even if the crisis doesn't reach let them eat cake proportions – they are still at risk of falling to the underbelly of society, if for no other reason, simply due to boredom.
So, assuming that a significantly higher number of working-age men and women will have significantly fewer job prospects in the immediate future, what are we to do with them? How will they keep themselves occupied?
I propose that, as an alternative to traditional employment, these people engage in large-scale, long-term, government-sponsored, semi-recreational activities. These must be activities that: (a) provide some financial reward to participants; (b) promote physical health and social well-being; and (c) make a tangible positive contribution to society. As a massive tongue-in-cheek, I call this proposal "The Jobless Games".
My prime candidate for such an activity would be a long-distance walk. The journey could take weeks, months, even years. Participants could number in the hundreds, in the thousands, even in the millions. As part of the walk, participants could do something useful, too; for example, transport non-urgent goods or mail, thus delivering things that are actually needed by others, and thus competing with traditional freight services. Walking has obvious physical benefits, and it's one of the most social things you can do while moving and being active. Such a journey could also be done by bicycle, on horseback, or in a variety of other modes.
How about we all just go for a stroll?
Image source: The New Paper.
Other recreational programs could cover the more adventurous activities, such as climbing, rafting, and sailing. However, these would be less suitable, because: they're far less inclusive of people of all ages and abilities; they require a specific climate and geography; they're expensive in terms of equipment and expertise; they're harder to tie in with some tangible positive end result; they're impractical in very large groups; and they damage the environment if conducted on too large a scale.
What I'm proposing is not competitive sport. These would not be races. I don't see what having winners and losers in such events would achieve. What I am proposing is that people be paid to participate in these events, out of the pocket of whoever has the money, i.e. governments and big business. The conditions would be simple: keep up with the group, and behave yourself, and you keep getting paid.
I see such activities co-existing alongside whatever traditional employment is still available in future; and despite all the doom and gloom predictions, the truth is that there always has been real work out there, and there always will be. My proposal is that, same as always, traditional employment pays best, and thus traditional employment will continue to be the most attractive option for how to spend one's days. Following that, "The Games" pay enough to get by on, but probably not enough to enjoy all life's luxuries. And, lastly, as is already the case in most first-world countries today, for the unemployed there should exist a social security payment, and it should pay enough to cover life's essentials, but no more than that. We already pay people sit down money; how about a somewhat more generous payment of stand up money?
Along with these recreational activities that I've described, I think it would also be a good idea to pay people for a lot of the work that is currently done by volunteers without financial reward. In a future with less jobs, anyone who decides to peel potatoes in a soup kitchen, or to host bingo games in a nursing home, or to take disabled people out for a picnic, should be able to support him- or herself and to live in a dignified manner. However, as with traditional employment, there are also only so many "volunteer" positions that need filling, and even with that sector significantly expanded, there would still be many people left twiddling their thumbs. Which is why I think we need some other solution, that will easily and effectively get large numbers of people on their feet. And what better way to get them on their feet, than to say: take a walk!
Large-scale, long-distance walks could also solve some other problems that we face at present. For example, getting a whole lot of people out of our biggest and most crowded cities, and "going on tour" to some of our smallest and most neglected towns, would provide a welcome economic boost to rural areas, considering all the support services that such activities would require; while at the same time, it would ease the crowding in the cities, and it might even alleviate the problem of housing affordability, which is acute in Australia and elsewhere. Long-distance walks in many parts of the world – particularly in Europe – could also provide great opportunities for an interchange of language and culture.
There you have it, my humble suggestion to help fill the void in peoples' lives in the future. There are plenty of other things that we could start paying people to do, that are more intellectual and that make a more tangible contribution to society: e.g. create art, be spiritual, and perform in music and drama shows. However, these things are too controversial for the government to support on such a large scale, and their benefit is a matter of opinion. I really think that, if something like this is to have a chance of succeeding, it needs to be dead simple and completely uncontroversial. And what could be simpler than walking?
Whatever solutions we come up with, I really think that we need to start examining the issue of 21st-century job redundancy from this social angle. The economic angle is a valid one too, but it has already been analysed quite thoroughly, and it will sort itself out with a bit of ingenuity. What we need to start asking now is: for those young, fit, ambitious people of the future that lack job prospects, what activity can they do that is simple, social, healthy, inclusive, low-impact, low-cost, and universal? I'd love to hear any further suggestions you may have.