Universal Basic Income, Automation and the Future of Jobs

With automation and artificial intelligence eliminating jobs, will a universal basic income be the only thing that saves us?
Marcia Wendorf

The nature of work has changed dramatically since the 1950s.

In that glorious post-war period, work was primarily a man's purview, while women did so-called "invisible" work - taking care of children, maintaining the home and cooking.

It wasn't unusual for a man to retire 40 years laterfrom the same employer he started with. That employer picked up the worker's health and life insurance, and some employers even paid school tuition for their workers' children. There was a sense of continuity. 

The 1950s
The 1950s Source: Pixabay

Welcome to today. It's rare for a worker to stay at a single job for longer than 4.2 years, according to an Economic News Release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Skilled and the Unskilled

Workers without a specific skill are slotted in, like cogs in a machine, to a never-ending stream of manufacturing or service jobs. Their pay is low and the number of hours worked is long.

Employers are pleasing their stock holders by extracting maximum value from their workforces by slashing wages and scaling back benefits. Employees are dealing with weakened unions, and rising costs of health care and education.

Automation and artificial intelligence are hitting this group the hardest, eliminating jobs at an alarming rate. For every manufacturing job lost to outsourcing in recent years, eight manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation.

Manufacturing robot
Manufacturing robot Source: Pixabay

The number one job in the U.S. is truck driver, with 7.4 million Americans having jobs tied to the trucking industry. What happens if driverless trucks take over?

The job of a travel agent has largely disappeared, with more and more people booking their trips over the Internet. Video store workers have long since been replaced by streaming services, and even cashiers at stores and fast-food restaurants are under pressure with more and more self-checkout options.


Workers with a specific skill flit from job to job, often ending up as part of the "gig economy". These people work sequentially for different companies, but competition for available gigs means pay can be low.

A subset of this group are the so-called "digital nomads". These folks take their skills and laptops on the road, searching for the perfect beach with a hi-speed internet connection, of course. A recent posting on a digital nomad Facebook group asked, "Has anyone found a low cost city outside the West with a beach, fast wifi (25mbps), no blackouts/brownouts, and no visa runs necessary?"

At the top of the heap are the entrepreneurs - people with particular skill sets or interests. This group seems to be limited to a small set of computer engineers situated around California's Stanford University. Where does this leave the rest of us?

Trying to Survive

A May 24, 2019 CNBC story about credit card agency Experian's report highlighted that the average American is carrying $6,506 in credit card debt.

Most shocking was the fact that 23% of Americans say that they are using their credit cards to pay for basic necessities, such as housing, utilities and food. A further 12% said the biggest portion of their credit card debt was medical bills.

If one of the bulwarks of capitalism is consumerism, then these people aren't using their cards to consume, but to survive. The same article states that middle class life is now 30% more expensive than it was 20 years ago, with the costs of housing, child care and college having risen dramatically.

New home building
New home building Source: U.S. Department of Defense/Flickr

During those years, housing prices in some popular cities have quadrupled, while tuition at public universities has doubled.

Just Scraping By

The new norm seems to be just scraping by. The same CNBC article says that a majority of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, and quotes an American Payroll Association report which says that, more than 70% of U.S. adults say they’d be in a difficult situation if their paycheck was delayed by even a week.

A solution has been proposed in the form of a universal basic income (UBI), where people receive a certain amount of money each month just for living.

But, how will this effect people's feelings of self worth? Human beings require a sense of belonging and purpose in order to feel complete.

Surprisingly, this exact same issue was taken up in 1875 by Karl Marx author of The Communist Manifesto who said, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Marx was talking about free access to and distribution of goods, capital and services. Marx thought that a developed communist system would produce an abundance of goods and services that would be sufficient to satisfy everyone's needs.

Before Marx, the same sentiments were discussed in 1639 in the Guilford Covenant, an agreement between twenty-five men who were the first settlers of Guilford in the New Haven Colony of Connecticut:

"We whose names are here underwritten, intending by God's gracious permission to plant ourselves in New England, and if it may be, in the southerly part about Quinnipiack, do faithfully promise each, for ourselves and our families and those that belong to us, that we will, the Lord assisting us, sit down and join ourselves together in one entire plantation, and be helpful each to the other in any common work, according to every man's ability, and as need shall require, and we promise not to desert or leave each other or the plantation, but with the consent of the rest, or the greater part of the company who have entered into this engagement."

Guilford Covenant
Guilford Covenant Source: Architect of the Capitol/Wikimedia Commons

And before the Guilford Covenant, in Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, a group of believers in Jerusalem was described as communal, without individual possessions, with the phrase, "distribution was made unto every man according as he had need."

While there have been a number of experiments in providing a universal basic income, as of this writing, no country has provided it on a national level. Switzerland and Finland held votes, but the measures failed to get enough votes to pass.

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