To benefit from the automation revolution we need a universal basic income, the slashing of working hours and a redefinition of ourselves without work.
When researchers Frey and Osborne predicted in 2013 that 47% of US jobs were susceptible to automation by 2050, they set off a wave of dystopian concern. But the key word is “susceptible”.
The automation revolution is possible, but without a radical change in the social conventions surrounding work it will not happen. The real dystopia is that, fearing the mass unemployment and psychological aimlessness it might bring, we stall the third industrial revolution. Instead we end up creating millions of low skilled jobs that do not need to exist.
The solution is to begin to de-link work from wages. You can see the beginnings of the separation on any business flight. Men and women hunched over laptops and tablets, elbows so close that if it were a factory it would be closed on health and safety grounds.
But it is a factory, and they are working – some of the time. They flip from spreadsheet to a movie to email to solitaire: nobody sets a timer – unless in one of the time-hoarding professions like law. At the high skill end of the workforce we increasingly work to targets, not time.
But to properly unleash the automation revolution we will probably need a combination of a universal basic income, paid out of taxation, and an aggressive reduction of the official working day. Typically, northern Europe is ahead of the curve: Sweden cut the working day to six hours, while Finland is experimenting with the idea of a basic citizen’s income.