Building a Better World Without Jobs
#WF35 What a brief history of work tells us about the prospects for a life of leisure
“the goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play.” Arthur C. Clarke
We can’t predict what work will be needed 10 years from now.
We don’t know how many people will be needed to do that work.
The JOB has been a good form of wealth distribution since industrialisation.
However, many traditional jobs are now unbundling enabled by technology. Many are finding alternative ways to develop income from digital platforms. Today, most people working globally don’t have a formal job.
We have a massive economic and societal opportunity to include an extended global workforce.
The institutions we have built up around the job will need to be changed and in some cases rebuilt.
This article outlines a brief history of the job, where it’s gone wrong and outlines what a brighter future of work might look like.
A Brief History of Work
The JOB is a fairly recent invention in human history.
Before the factories many worked in agriculture to feed their families.
We made pottery, weaved clothes, and brewed booze for fun.
Working from home is not new – for example, from the 1600s people in England made dresses and shoes at home.
With technology innovations such as the Bobbin and Spinning Jenny we could work together in factories.
And the modern JOB was created.
We then created the 12-hour working day, the 6-day working week, the 5-day week, the weekend, and guess what’s next?
We devised ‘command and control’ industrialisation.
We created laws, like closing the pubs early on Sunday nights so workers would turn up on time on Monday.
Our societies raised more taxes and provided welfare, education, and, health services.
The graph shows the rise of the social state in Europe from 1870-2015, public spending rising from 10% of fiscal revenues to 47%.
Workers got together collectively and campaigned for better pay and conditions and funded influential political parties.
For some, the JOB gave meaning, structure and purpose.
For most, it put food on the plates.
For two centuries JOBs, and the institutions we built from them, helped to redistribute wealth and improve education.
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Walls Come Tumbling Down
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
600m Chinese started to join the global workforce and were lifted out of poverty – the biggest improvement in history.
Globalisation accelerated on steroids.
Technology leaped into the internet era.
Wages in the West peaked around this time and then slowly declined.
The so-called ‘elephant 🐘 curve of global inequality’ ranks the world’s citizens on income. It shows how much each group standing on the same rung of the 1988 income ladder saw their income increase by 2008.
It shows the rise of a global middle class, including China, but also that 27% of total growth is captured by the top 1%.
This will be debated for decades by economists, but you get the point.
By the 2020s we have lower wages, populism, and a cost of living crisis.
Companies continue to use outdated ‘command and control’ techniques to manage their workforce, even when most don’t run factories anymore.
A life of leisure? In the last 40 years, leisure time has actually fallen.
The reason is that more women have joined the workforce and this leisure time has been transferred to childcare.
The internet provided us with free streaming 24x7 entertainment.
There are many competing ways to spend our leisure time outside work. From online gaming, shopping, socialising, or other streaming entertainment. Workers have repriced their leisure time.
On the flip side, the internet gave us new digital landlords where we pay to access our own data, paying digital platforms 20% transaction fees for little discernable value.
In this era Capitalism got complacent and turned into it’s negligent cousin - Crony Capitalism – not the Adam Smith version.
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Full-Circle - Technology innovation enables a transition back to a decentralised workforce
It was technology innovation that enabled us to centralise and industralise work.
It is technology innovation that will allow us to decentralise work in smaller teams.
We have seen this in the Digital Covid Age.
In 3 months we accelerated 5-year digital transformation plans and budgets to enable remote working - now about 45% of US workers can work at home.
As the traditional job unbundles into tasks, it is redistributed on work-matching platforms.
A new infrastructure of work is being built that allows individuals to control their own career data and will make platforms much more effective and efficient. You can read more about a current critique of the work and staffing industry, how it will be rebuilt and what it means for the firm in my paper with a foreword by Don Tapscott.
There is a two-pronged attack on the structure of jobs - not necessarily the amount and type of work. By vertical industries, airlines, oil exploration, education, health, with specific work platforms, and across horizontal skills sets such as driving, design, coding, or coaching.
There are 3.4 billion people in the global workforce.
If a world without jobs surprises you, consider this,
Most workers do not have a job today.
6 out 10 workers do not have a formal job - they work in the informal economy.
They have no contract or much protection.
Digital platforms are allowing millions of people to develop income streams outside of traditional employment.
The platforms promise to be another massive economic and societal opportunity to include an extended workforce. From labourers to playbourers, carers to sharers, preachers to teachers. Read more about “unleashing the decentralised workforce”.
Building a New Social Contract and Infrastructure
“We need new mechanisms for distributing abundant output in a world which labour is made economically redundant by autonomous machines” Anton Korinek and Megan Juelfs
We can’t predict what work will need to be done in the future or how much of it there will be. Much written about this subject recycles economic theories developed before the digital economy and adds some dubious extrapolation.
The truth is nobody knows.
Let’s assume for now that,
1. There is less work to do
2. Employment contracts are changing
3. Wealth needs to be redistributed in different ways
Work doesn’t go away, but needs to be reframed, re-valued, and re-organised.
Financial security has disconnected from labour.
If there is less work to do then the aim for society is not full employment – but would seem to be greater financial security.
What do we need to build in a world with fewer jobs?
Here are the types of solutions we might see :-
Universal Basic Income is not a new idea, Thomas Paine was a fan in 1797. Basically, this gives every adult a minimum income. It has some free-market fans – it reduces public admin costs and privatises huge industries. Some on the left love it too. There have been some smaller-scale experiments with tenuous conclusions. The real test is when a whole country adopts it. It was a rather wonky idea three years ago, but then the pandemic hit. Globally, we learned we could pay people quickly when their income dried up and not everyone was paid by a monthly payroll. For example, the UK spent £70 billion on wage subsidies. Targeted furlough and kurzarbeit schemes have been proposed to prepare for future economic disruptions.
Broader scope of public services – with the increased cost of living, some governments are piloting public services that have historically been paid for by citizens. Recent schemes include free train services on specific lines in Spain and Germany.
Lifelong Education budgets - it is hard to know what skills children and adults will need in the future. Educational services will boom. But, how should this be funded? Maybe a solution is providing every adult with a learning budget to spend on courses and skill attainment.
We are talking about building a new social contract - how will we pay for this?
Taxation is one area where I have confidence that governments will respond to the challenge.
At one end of the scale, societies need to provide social protection, and at the other end need to enable better wealth distribution and encourage innovation and entrepreneurialism.
What A New Infrastructure For Work Might Look Like
New ways of organising work are emerging - we can start to see them now.
Employers don’t need to ‘control their workforces’ on multi-year contracts as they can source work directly from reliable work-matching platforms they trust. Less permanent salaried staff are needed and there is far more churn with lower transaction costs and smoother onboarding. The distinction blurs between salaried employees and all types of contractors.
For workers - there will be more projects, contracts, 100 different careers. Multiple income streams from equity shares on different projects. A guaranteed minimum basic income reduces financial insecurity for the times individuals cannot work e.g. caring for the family, full-time learning, when sick. Many will find like-minded people to collaborate with complementary skills and interests and flourish in smaller organisations.
The technology allows new teams to form. Allowing communities to flourish with governance, incentives, and share equity. Examples include DAOs, digital guilds, platform cooperatives, career-focused communities etc.
With increased financial security, we might see a boom in entrepreneurial activity.
The barriers to entry of joining a DAO, starting a business, sharing equity are lowered to zilch which makes it easier for collaboration.
Economic activity in the metaverse will grow quickly with virtual concerts, games, auctions, sports, and community problem solving.
This can create a wealth boom for traditionally under-represented communities, not tied to a particular town, or a fortunate social graph.
Building a Preferable Future
JOBs have given us a lot, but we need to build new social support structures.
How long will this take?
A - Slow, slow, then quick.
B - Quicker than it took the West to industrialise.
C - I just don’t know.
Unemployment might not be something to be scared of, but to be embraced.
The 2nd part of Arthur C Clarke’s quote is about education,
“Education will become the largest single industry and entertainment a close second-or mankind would die of utter boredom in a workless world.”
We won’t die of boredom – creative humans will find innovative ways to entertain ourselves.
We might go back to pre-industrial days in some ways, but hopefully not in others.
Our range of future paths is not inevitable, it is shaped by us today.
I can make a positive case for a better future of work, with or without jobs.
A ‘golden age for work’ is not inevitable.
“… there is nothing automatic about golden ages happening each time, just as there is nothing deterministic about a technological revolution.”
This account of the End of Jobs will scare the hell out of some and inspire others.
This will depend on where you’re at, and :
the Capital you have in Chicago or Chengdu
the Labour you provide in Lagos or London
the Regulators you have in Riyadh or Rome
the Unemployment support in Uppsala or Udaipur
The JOB will unwind slowly.
There will still need to be work contracts.
Employment patterns will change, enabled by technology.
But Work is not dead.
In fact, our most important work is ahead of us - to build better successful, more harmonious societies.
Let me know your thoughts.
Free Tickets for Future Works Conference in Lisbon on 7th and 8th October
I am delighted to be speaking again at Future.Works Conference in Lisbon on 7th and 8th October, on “Building a Better World Without Jobs”
The team in Lisbon have created a really interesting agenda, from crypto salaries, leading remote teams, democratic cybersecurity, flash teams, city nomads, the metaversed.
I am thrilled to be able to offer Workforce Futurist subscribers free tickets!
It’s on a ‘First come, first serve’ basis and applies to both the virtual and in-person tickets. If you do come, do find me to say Ola and share a café and pastel de nata!
Blockchain Brainfood, Web3 and the Future of Work
I am speaking with Hung Lee, Pedro Oliveira and Fem Markslag next on the 7th October at 2pm.
We usually chat away from microphones, so this one might be fun.