Gemma Milne
Tech / Innovation
Robots Stealing Our Jobs – The Case For Basic Income

“In the past, everything was worse.” According to Rutger Bregman, the biggest lesson to learn when thinking about the last 200 years is that we are currently living in the best time period to date. Poverty is at an all-time low, and we’re safer than ever, and yet if you were to read the sentiment of our times through the tone of the media, you’d think we were truly struggling.

At a How To Academy event in London, Bregman argues that by looking at utopian visions of the past – which could be summarised by ‘enough food for all and unlimited access to sex’ – you’d be left wondering what else there is left to do. He feels that, as a society, we spend a lot of time being ‘against’ ideas as opposed to ‘for’ them, but that change happens from pushing an idea forward. “Martin Luther King didn’t say ‘I have a nightmare’”, he laughs. It seems we need something new to aim for as a society in 2017.

For Bregman, this is where Universal Basic Income comes in. There has been recent renewed interest in this pretty old form of proposed social security; in the 1970s, the Nixon administration got a bill pushing for UBI through congress twice before being blocked by the Senate. Maybe this is the vision of utopia which makes sense in the 21st century.

Bregman’s rationale for UBI revolves around the idea that the utopia we should be working towards is one in which work choices are totally without baggage. “Life without poverty becomes a right, not a privilege – only the rich have the right to say no to a job they don’t want to do.”

The discussion around UBI is particularly interesting when framed alongside our current gradual transition from human labour to increased automation and robotics. Many are worried that their jobs will be lost to algorithms, and therefore levels of unemployment will soar.

Therefore, Bregman believes that now is the ideal time to really consider the merits of paid employment. With studies showing that 37% of British workers believe that their job doesn’t need to exist, Bregman argues that the biggest taboo of our time is that “we have a lot of bullshit jobs”. With the binmen, the care workers and the cleaners seeing the worth in their work, and the city workers, the lawyers and the management consultants being the ones thinking what they do doesn’t matter, maybe the collision of automation and Universal Basic Income will mean we can value paid jobs based purely on societal need.

The definition of work is something we haven’t quite formalised as a society – if it’s about doing something useful, then surely volunteering or caring for children and the elderly should count. In the context of mass automation, if robots are to take away our employment then are we to move towards a society where the focus is more on ‘valuable’ work, leaving us to lead better lives?

It certainly seems the case when looking at the data taken from societies which have adopted UBI in the past. In 1974, the Canadian town of Dauphin gave everyone a guaranteed basic income so nobody fell below the poverty line, for four years. The data wasn’t analysed fully until 2009, but the findings showed that child school performance increased, hospitalisation went down and domestic violence was much reduced. It’s also been found that countries which have the shortest working weeks have the highest social capital – people not only volunteer more, they take more time for going to the theatre, for instance.

The big thinkers of the past – such as Isaac Asimov – projected that the big challenge of the future would be boredom as a result of robots taking our jobs, but with proof showing that less work and more financial security makes for a healthier, more socially active society, maybe they’re wrong.

“Innovation is about giving people the opportunity to think about what they want to do with their lives and giving them the means to do so”, argues Bregman. Robots aren’t stopping us from taking more time to do the things we choose – in fact, without the worry of a basic means to afford to live, they most definitely enable us. Bregman wants the UBI argument to stop being framed as a method of ‘care’, but rather, in terms of investment – venture capital for the people, as it were.

Bregman ends his talk with a quote from Victor Hugo: “Stronger than a thousand armies, is an idea whose time has come”. In 2017 – a time in which robotics and automation are growing at speed and in ability – surely the time for UBI really is now.

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