By 2050, between 47% and 80% of all current jobs will become automated. This is both a terrifying and potentially liberating prospect. While the dystopian version of this proposition resembles a future represented by a Matrix-like society of humans controlled by machines, the future of our working lives inevitably depends on our relationship with technology. As the Western world experiences stagnant economic growth and increasingly precarious and insecure jobs which are often low-paid and low-skilled, these crises pose new questions for the kind of economic model we wish to follow. As the ageing working classes of Western Europe and the US struggle with the loss of identity connected to stable industries into anonymous and demeaning new careers, the purpose of work as it is traditionally defined comes under scrutiny.
What kind of jobs are we creating?
The global reality is that there is a growing ‘population surplus’ – meaning there are simply not enough jobs to go around and that we are continually having to artificially create new, often unnecessary ones just to plug the gap, while keeping unemployment high enough to put sufficient downward pressure on the labour market. Automation has created a polarised job market – on the one hand deskilled roles completing repetitive and menial tasks and also facilitating job prospects for highly-skilled operatives of improving technology, programming and data management.
Discourse as to the solution to these issues falls decidedly within leftist political thought, often with disappointing or non-existent alternatives as part of the preparation for a post-capitalist society as a rejection of neoliberalism. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams however go further than this – calling for a radical rethinking of society in a post-work environment. While representing a leftist argument, the authors are in fact as critical of the left’s current strategy as that of the right. Srnicek and Williams take the reader on a comprehensive tour of current geopolitical crises, the stagnation of the West and the current ineffectiveness of alternative political challenges to the status quo. ‘Folk politics’ is a phrase used repeatedly in a chapter on the failure of the left and recent protests such as Occupy to enact any long term structural change. The feeling of doing ‘something’ on a local level is, according to the authors, a futile and selfish attempt at gaining any meaningful change in an era where simply rejecting the current situation is regarded as radical.
What can be done?
Inventing the Future calls for the full automation of society, a process which has been picking up speed ever since the introduction of ATMs, self-scan checkouts and so on. Srnicek and Williams argue that this has previously been held back by the access to cheap labour and the levels of investment required in some cases to make automation viable. This process is, we are reminded, happening all across the developing world, as countries bypass the manufacturing sector in pursuit of a low-skilled service economy.
Now there is of course a sizeable section of society for whom technology has created and enhanced jobs and added complexity and value to the skills required to perform them in their relevant sectors. Agriculture for example has benefited from mechanisation and automation in order to free workers from the hardships and graft of working the land into new roles for farmers and scientists to operate in make farming a more productive enterprise.
Alongside the proposal for full automation is the somewhat underdeveloped argument for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This policy has enjoyed a recent renaissance within European states, introduced by Finland and recently put to a referendum by the Swiss government. The idea nearly became a reality in 1960s Britain and dates all the way back to Thomas More’s Utopia in 1510. The idea of handing over state money across the country at a standard rate might seem absurd politically in the context of our declining welfare state and continued reminders of the importance of ‘living within our means.’ Would this grant the lower income population freedom from the drudgery and insecurity of contemporary work, an opportunity to spend time on things which actually bring a sense of purpose and direction to our modern lives. Or will it create a chaotic society where an irresponsible public needlessly blow away their incomes on pointless goods?
Srnicek and Williams put forward a careful and viable argument for automation and the freedom from unnecessary menial jobs. In comparison to other proposals for alternatives to the current neoliberal model, the detail is lucid and comprehensible to a mainstream audience. The question one might ask however is whether or not a future of full automation (leaving aside the fact that it is practically impossible) is something we want to pursue in a social sense. Srnicek and Williams appear unperturbed by the rise of machines and the manipulation of these tools by corporations. The ‘freedom’ associated with a life free from work seems to be offset by the prospect of a future determined by technological processes which have ever increasing control over the way our lives are led in a physical sense. Given the value associated with personal data and the ability to convert this into models for everything including our voting and purchasing intentions, a fully automated world brings with it alarming consequences which are perhaps underdeveloped in this otherwise comprehensive study in alternative future scenarios for the way we define work.