The Coming Workless Future

Last October a measure called the basic income referendum was put on the ballot in Switzerland. What this measure sought to do was pay every adult in Switzerland $2800 just for, well being alive and living in Switzerland (see reuters.com article).

The Swiss have one of highest standards of living in the world and a stunningly beautiful country. They are a smart well educated people, evidenced by their ability to stay out of two very destructive world wars. This may sound like some kind of Utopian fantasy, but it is not, and it is noteworthy it is happening in a country that was once the home to hell and brimstone thinkers like John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli.

Nevertheless, the Swiss maybe onto something, in January 2014, The Labor Department issued figures showing that the number of people working or looking for work was at the lowest levels since 1977 (see washingtonpost. com article). Economists argue over why, some say it is an aging workforce, other say students finding no work are staying in college. However, those figures cannot account for the total loss of people from the workforce.

There is a reason not often mentioned, but evident, labor saving technologies have eliminated so many jobs, there are simply no jobs for these people to apply for. This was amplified in a recent post on ZdNet titled “Hell no, we won’t pay: How technology transformed our perception of value” (see zd.net article).  Technology is undermining the traditional concepts of value. Not surprising as many in that arena are libertarians.

What is slowly dawning on economic policy-makers is that technology may signal the death knell to free market capitalism.

What we need to start thinking about as innovators and entrepreneurs is a future where populations have to work less, where like the above mentioned Swiss referendum people get paid for just being alive. This may shock many free market believers, but it is becoming evident in country after country, the global free market system is not serving the best interests of the largest number of people. It is worth remembering that  liberal capitalism  first enunciated by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. The world of men in wigs wearing big buckled shoes riding to  ye Olde Tavern for a glass of ale, are long gone, and the system he laid out has very little to do with a global economy connected by instantaneous communication and robotic assembly lines. In Smith’s day labor was valuable, in classical economic theory, it is the labor put in that creates value, but we live in a world where more and more machines are doing the work.

Soon, machines will do most of the work. Consider the following, farms are increasingly being run by GPS guided machines and drones; they require little or no human supervision. (see pbs.org/wgbh/nova) The time is coming when getting the food from the farm to the supermarket will involve no human hand. The automated farm harvesters will load onto self-driving vehicles, like what Google is developing, the produce will be taken to factories where robots and automation will process it, then back onto the self-driving vehicles, finishing up at the supermarket. Today, many markets allow you to order on line. Shoppers just pick up at a drive through and pay at an automatic teller, soon the deliver could be by unmanned drones .  This is not some future fantasy, this is happening today. The end result is everyone needs to get ready for the work-less society.

That is why the referendum put on the ballot by the Swiss, is a bellweather of things to come.

Editor’s note: See Peter’s companion article Personalized Innovation in a Workless Future; and also from Vivek Wadhwa We’re heading into a jobless future no matter what the government does

image credit: poisedtotriple.com

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Peter DoylePeter Doyle is an award winning media marketing, news and documentary producer using rich media to accelerate innovation and commercialization. Check me out at http://www.linkedin.com/in/peterjdoyle

This entry was posted in Culture & Values, Customers, Innovation Perspectives, Social Innovation, Technology, The Economy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Coming Workless Future

  1. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | The Coming Workless Fut...

  2. Marshall Barnes says:

    That’s all well and good but you have NOTHING on the other side of the equation. There’s no sustainability model, there’s no consideration for what these populations will do, let alone the economic fallout for the developing world.

    Your workless society is a recipe for societal collapse – not because of the inherent value of work but because you have no prospect for how people will support themselves.

    Stop the bus. I’m getting off before the crash…

  3. Peter Doyle says:

    Marshall
    The first question to ask is why are we creating these technologies if all they do is displace labor at a time of a growing world population, profit, but if fewer work, then it is self defeating. Then the only way to keep people busy is to expand the public sector, via community projects, expanded kindergarten, assistance for the elderly, environmental clean up. Taxes are paid to fund our armed forces to protect our nation, now we can have taxes to improve society and communities. Stay on the bus..

  4. Pingback: Can Governments afford to pay USD2800 to simply have people stay alive? | Raj's Lab

  5. Marshall Barnes says:

    Peter:

    You haven’t done the math, you’ve only drunk the kook-aid. You remind me of the people in the transhumanism movement. Myopic vision. Yes, taxes fund the military but you want taxes to fund society. And where is all this tax money coming from? Right now the country is trillions of dollars in debt. With a dramatic reduction in the work force, (which you’ve failed to realize, will spill over into business closures due to some of this change) the tax burden will skyrocket.

    Like Marx you see a problem and jump to the wrong conclusion. The crux of it is when you said “the global free market system is not serving the best interests of the largest number of people.” Yeah, so let’s create this utopia where not only do the workers rule but there’s no need to even work! Right, like that’s going to happen.

    Let me bring back to reality a bit with another example – I used to see those old movies with the futuristic cities filled with flying cars and I thought how cool it would be when that future finally came to pass. Well it’s still not here. You know why? It’s not the technology, that exists. It’s the fall out, that they never show in those celluloid fantasies, from the ariel accidents that would happen. People can’t always control vehicles on the ground. The prospect of them doing so in large numbers around busy downtown centers while in the air as depicted, would be a catastrophe in the waiting, despite the safety work-arounds. Robotics wouldn’t solve all of it either, just like they won’t get self-driving cars to replace regular ones.

    You’re like the science fiction writers of decades ago – predicting the future as they saw it, and getting it all wrong…

  6. Peter Doyle says:

    Marshall
    here is a piece of reality from Queensland Australia
    Last week, for the first time in memory, the wholesale price of electricity in Queensland fell into negative territory – in the middle of the day.

    For several days the price, normally around $40-$50 a megawatt hour, hovered in and around zero. Prices were deflated throughout the week, largely because of the influence of one of the newest, biggest power stations in the state – rooftop solar.
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/07/solar-has-won-even-if-coal-were-free-to-burn-power-stations-couldnt-compete

  7. Marshall Barnes says:

    Peter:

    That fact fails to address any of the objections I had to your position, which just goes to show how much you don’t get it. Let’s pretend the energy is free, the way that Tesla wanted to have it. OK, so cost of living goes down and it’s like everyone gets an automatic raise – if they’re working.

    You had your shot visionary. I’ve got things to do about changing the real world. I don’t care about the fantasy ones, that people without a cogent argument, sustain in their heads. Good luck with that welfare society of yours…

  8. Peter Doyle says:

    Marshall
    You are missing the point, when self driving cars and trucks hit the road, what happens to the millions of taxi drivers, truckers, delivery people. What work do they do? Now multiple that by robotics in manufacturing and countless other labor saving technologies. From a logical point of view.. if a technology is labor-saving then there is less work to do. Our economic system is not designed for that, labor is the value add that results in profit.

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