Age of automation: what if more work is the problem, not the solution?

There isn’t a major political party in the world that doesn’t at least pay lip service to the idea that one of their primary objectives is to create jobs. The idea of full employment as a desirable political goal is so taken for granted that we barely think about it, even in a world of accelerating automation.
But what if work, in the form of paid employment, isn’t the unalloyed good we routinely presume it to be? What if, in fact, more work is the problem?
This is the challenging idea at the heart of a report released by the Green Institute, a progressive thinktank headed by Tim Hollo. The institute was founded in 2008 to provide policy advice to the Australian Greens but Hollo says his goal since being appointed executive director in early 2016 has been to make the organisation more outward-facing.
The report, Can Less Work Be More Fair?, comes at a time when concerns about jobs being displaced by robots and other forms of technology are heightened. “If we fail to analyse these trends and look to the future right now, we’re missing a huge issue,” Hollo says.
He argues that we need to reexamine attitudes to work and see it as less central to defining who we are. “Our culture has increasingly told us that paid work is where we find our dignity and our place in society and if we aren’t able to find paid work, we are less worthy.”
In the report itself, that view is expressed this way: “What if, instead of trying to recreate an old world of abundant paid work, we … built systems, institutions and cultures in which less paid work could lead to greater equity, reinvigorated democracy and civil society, better environmental outcomes, and a more caring, creative, connected community?”
If that is the philosophical underpinning of the report, then its practical aspects rest on a discussion of two key policy positions: shorter working hours and a universal basic income. The policies are presented as the pillars of a new approach to economic management, one that would see Australia move towards what report contributor Prof Greg Marston, a sociologist at the University of Queensland, calls a “steady-state economy”.
“This is an old idea in economics, which simply means an economy of steady or mildly fluctuating size,” Marston explains.
“So if the pie isn’t going to get any bigger,” Marston argues, “we need to focus on a fairer distribution of wealth, which is a critical component of sustainability and the steady state economy.”
This is where a UBI comes in. This suddenly popular policy – the idea of paying everyone a basic wage, whether they are working or not – is being tested in jurisdictions around the world as governments realise that the traditional labour market, predicated on everyone having a full-time job, is increasingly failing to provide the security it once did.
Marston and other contributors to the report see UBI and shorter working hours as the way to address these problems, problems likely to be exacerbated as technology threatens more and more jobs.
“I think the two policies reinforce each other,” Marston says. “They send a message that a healthy society is one where we don’t have a simultaneous problem of overemployment and underemployment, as we currently do in Australia.”
He makes the important point that a UBI is a floor on earnings, not a ceiling, and that therefore, “there is nothing about UBI that is incompatible with paid work”.
Despite the report basically championing UBI, Hollo himself worries that the concept is being oversold by its proponents.
“UBI is often posited as a silver bullet, and I am deeply sceptical of that view. It will need to be one small part of a broad suite of policies, addressing universal health and education, affordable housing, job sharing and much more.
“So it’s my belief that working less should be a central aim of a prosperous and fair society. But what policy settings we use to get there, I am not sure.”
This open-mindedness about the best way forward is a welcome attribute in a political landscape now dominated by ideologues and authoritarians. It means the report he has overseen is more about opening up a discussion of our future than closing it down with ready-made answers.
Hollo thinks the argument the report is making can win people over, even those in politics and business who might be inclined at first to dismiss it.