This post is a bit of a rant, and is a bit of a brain dump. You’ve been warned. I’ve been thinking about the changes we are experiencing in modern first-world countries especially. I have been keeping track of the basic income movement and I see a strange set of mental blockers in our culture that will make transitioning to a heavily automated society very difficult.
The first thing to note is that we, those of us in the US and Canada especially, are way too focused on job creation numbers. I see all kinds of reports about how many thousand new jobs are created. Canada’s job gains biggest in 7 months, buoyed by manufacturing:
Canada’s economy added 58,900 jobs in May, handily topping expectations and the biggest gain since October, helped by a surge in employment in the manufacturing sector, data from Statistics Canada showed on Friday.
The news media seem to think that if job creation goes up, we are creating a wealthier/better society. We’ve trapped ourselves into over valuing raw employment numbers without considering any of the other factors or variables that go into those new jobs. Are they jobs that we have people with the skills and abilities to fill? Are they jobs that will provide meaningful value to those that receive them? Are they jobs that pay well enough to allow those that get them the income to improve our society in a noticeable way?
These are questions that likely only someone like myself, currently gainfully employed, can consider. I doubt those that are unemployed or underemployed care how fulfilling a job is or if it pays them enough to be happy, when they are trying to find something that will let them put food in their stomachs or a roof over their head. I know that our world needs to change, and that with increased automation, we are entering the early stages of a transition to a world with fewer jobs. In the basic income circles, I see a great, though simplistic example of what’s broken in our society.
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Create a fishing robot, and all mankind starve?
It seems ridiculous, but our society hasn’t had the foresight to work out what we will need to do in a world that automates us completely out of the tasks needed to create products that provide for our needs. How long until most companies replace their front-line human staff with machines?
But I’m sure they’ll still need staff to cook the food, right? Unless they buy a bunch of Momentum Machines robots to make the burgers. Or maybe corporations will skip single purpose hamburger making machines and go right to a general set of kitchen arms to do the cooking like shown in the below video.
Well, at least companies will have to hire chef’s to come up with the recipes, right? There is no way machines could figure out how to come up with new combinations of food for corporations to create marketing campaigns around.
Come on…Really!? Well, maybe I’ll go to a grocery store instead, that way I can get real food from real people.
Well, moving on from the automated take over of our society, there is something more important I’ve constantly wondered about: how can we, as human beings, be happy with even one percent of our country’s population being in poverty? When we look at job numbers and see that we only have a few percentage points of unemployment, how can anyone feel happy? Is it because we feel like it isn’t many people or because we compare ourselves against countries that are worse off, thus excusing our own issues?
Think about this: in 2011, the working-age population (those aged 15 to 64) represented 68.5% of the Canadian population1. Assuming that is still the case today in 2015 (or close to it). We are currently a population of thirty-six million people. That means around twenty-five million people are currently working age. Canada currently has an unemployment rate of around 6%2 or 1,500,000 people that are considered “unemployed”. That’s more people than the entire population of Ottawa, Ontario3 also known as Canada’s capital. This number doesn’t even include the people that have given up looking for a job, and there are reports that the true unemployment could be two or three times this number4. This number doesn’t include people that are underemployed, which could double this number again. This ends up being a great deal of people in a pretty horrible situation, all because we, as a country, haven’t come together like the generations before us to take care of a huge issue in our society: the quality of life of all our citizens.
Say we create jobs for all of these people, most of them will likely be minimum wage; which, while increasing slowly to be closer to a livable wage, still doesn’t go far enough in creating an economic ladder for people to climb. With the middle class being squeezed out of existence5, it is quickly becoming difficult to move up the corporate ladder in a way that can benefit a family, be meaningful for the worker, and improve what they can provide to society at large.
It is rare today that we see one parent being able to stay home due to the economic struggles of the family unit. A single person working a decent median income job can no longer afford all that their family needs without a second income. With the median income family earning $76,5506 and the average price of homes at $448,8627, I don’t find it surprising that both parents often need to work. This means that we’ve removed the opportunities that come with being able to have someone be at home and raise their children. We have created extra stress and anxiety into our society by pushing the needs of our family, our home, and ourselves to the time between arriving home after work and going to bed each evening. My wife and I don’t currently have children, but I do know that we often struggle finding enough time to do all the things we’d like to do with our families, friends and each other.
I am frustrated with how broken society feels, and I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I don’t think that creating new jobs is the answer that our society needs. I don’t think that raising minimum wage is going to fix the issues I’m seeing everywhere. I don’t think that the systems being put in place for “on-demand” jobs is going to fix society. I really believe that there needs to be a fundamental shift in how the resources of our country are divided up and that we, as a collective, find a better way to support all of those that have need of food and shelter just as we’ve attempted to do for life threatening medical issues. I don’t know the solution, and I don’t know how long until someone smart finds one, but I do believe that we are living in the generation of transition and that automation is going to kill job creation, so we need to start thinking past the next quarter.
Check out Futurology, Basic Income and Lost Generation on Reddit, and start getting informed. We have a limited amount of time to pressure our government to make huge changes in our society, or the lack of employment might become an issue for nearly all of us.