“The changes unleashed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril.”
Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum (2017)
The changes Klaus Schwab is referring to are technological -- major advances over the last decade in artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, blockchains, biotechnology, quantum computing, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, and more.
The speed of these breakthroughs has no historical precedent and is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. According to a 2020 survey by the World Economic Forum, one half of the time spent on tasks at work in large companies will be done by machines by 2025. To put that in perspective in 2016 only 29% of those tasks were automated.
Looking at this from a consumer perspective, the Fourth Industrial Revolution promises us cheaper and more convenient access to all sorts of new stuff.
The peril, however, is unprecedented job losses.
There is much talk of retraining for the new digital age. While retraining is important, it is difficult to see how automation is going to create anywhere near enough jobs to make up for losses. Moreover, there is always the risk that the retrained jobs will themselves get automated. We just don't know how far this automation revolution will take us.
The CEOs of industry understand that. It’s why so many of them are now coming out in favour of a Universal Basic Income, in which all residents (say between 18 and 65) receive monthly payments from government, regardless of whether they have a job or not.
This, understandably, can seem immensely appealing to those stuck in precarious work where all too often you are underpaid and undervalued. But UBI does nothing to address the root of the problem, which is job destruction.
Unless we address this, there is the real danger that we will end up with a very small group of people with much sought-after high-tech skills that do very well, and a whole lot of people who don’t. A worse case scenario is a marginalized underclass of permanently undervalued and underemployed citizens.
One obvious solution to this dilemma is to create jobs that the machines can’t do. These would be the jobs that enrich our sense of community and fellowship - jobs that bring us together and deliver meaning to our lives.
The private sector doesn’t do a very good job at creating that kind of work. The desire to make every more money gets in the way. But government could.
What if, instead of a Universal Basic Income, we offered to everybody who wanted it a Guaranteed Basic Job? What if we made the focus of those jobs community and environmental improvements? What if we allowed local communities to decide what their needs and wants were?
Two authors have both written and spoken extensively about that very possibility. Pavlina Tcherneva outlines how the jobs could be created in “A Case for a Job Guarantee”, and Stephanie Kelton writes about how a job guarantee could be financed through Modern Monetary Theory in “The Deficit Myth”.
As for us, we’ve made an eight-minute video summarizing why Canadians should consider a Federal Job Guarantee, how it could work in practice, and how it could be financed. Please consider checking it out.
We live in a time of unprecedented crises – climate change, biodiversity implosion and now our pandemic. Unprecedented crises demand unprecedented action. A federal job guarantee with an emphasis on grass root participation may not be a sufficient answer to the multiple crises of our age. But it is a good first step.