Automation and the living wage

Lots of sources say that automation, machines, are going to take most of the jobs available at the moment. This worries me, not only because I’ve seen Terminator too many times, but because I wonder what people will do with themselves if they’re not working. We may complain about work, but it’s a big part of our identity. It gives us the capacity and the comfort of contributing to society, of supporting ourselves and our families. It gives us skills that we can use every day and in a variety of contexts and it gives us something to work for and towards.

Without work, without the training that we need to keep up with trends and advances, without that push, why would we ever go to school? If we only need education to read food labels and fast food menus, why would we learn about algebra, philosophy and biology? We might want to think otherwise, that we are a species that self-starts and does things ‘just because’, but the truth is that we need to be pushed to do the things that are good for us. People don’t generally take up an exercise program until their doctor tells them to or their clothes get tight, they don’t get out of a job they hate until the discomfort of it is too great, and they don’t leave their relationships until they despise the other person.

There are exceptions to this of course, human qualities and tendencies are usually a spectrum, not a point, but the vast majority of us… Yeah, I smoke, so I think I know what I’m talking about on this.

The idea behind this living wage is that certain people are given a set amount of money, each month, regardless of whether they are working or not, regardless of how much money they make. Everyone gets this money. Somehow, I think this wage is meant to make up for the fact that a lot of people are losing or going to lose their jobs because of automation. In the short term, it’s meant to give people the chance to be able to support themselves while they are unemployed and looking for further work. Because of the living wage, they will have the room to wait and look for work that they enjoy and are good at without the fear of financial devastation.

I really don’t see how this is going to work. Sure there will be people who do just this, they’ll manage to live off the living wage and find work that suits them. But the idea is that we should trust people to do this, to do the right thing. In my life, I’ve usually found that trusting people to always do the right thing is a pretty stupid thing to do. People won’t always do the right thing, and they won’t always want to do the right thing and believing otherwise is naïve.

But what troubles me more is that this whole situation might just teach a whole class of people to settle for less. The long term, end result seems to me to be a class of rich and powerful creators and business people, who own the automated companies, and a class of people living on a basic, living wage that pays for nothing really, with no real chance of people in this ‘class’ moving up through their chosen industry and earning more. What it means is that people get pacified and don’t see until its too late that the chances of moving up, doing better, having more, are radically vanishing.

Does anyone really believe that this living wage will be enough to live comfortably on? Aren’t these movements just a way to introduce the idea of the living wage now, while there are still a number of jobs available, so that when those jobs get taken by machines, we’re already used to the idea and reality of living on this living wage? The people who are trialling this idea seem to have good intentions, and they might, but it just seems to be another short sighted and ultimately destructive solution to a problem that is only going to get worse.

I read fairly recently about a change in the structure of the work world, that once most people were ‘workers’, doing their part to put together the products made by their companies. But as time goes on, as machines get more sophisticated, this class is dwindling. Apparently, what is supposed to rise next is the creative class, with the biggest section of society dedicated to making and creating new things in every field. That sounds nice. It sounds like a good dream. It also sounds like it was dreamed by a creative who assumed that everyone sees the world in the same way.

Because we don’t. Not everyone is the same. Some people are highly creative, always coming up with new and innovative ways to see and interact with the world, always making and testing and exploring. But I think the number of people who see the world in this way is less than we would like to think. I think that more people just want to live, want to do work that is fairly easy so they can get the money to feed themselves and live in quiet little boxes where they are safe, where they know everything that’s around them, and where they don’t have to change.

I know it’s probably not politically correct to think that way, that I’m supposed to believe that humans have limitless potential and drive and contribution. Maybe they do. But I really believe that most people just want to be comfortable and safe in the ruts they make for themselves.

America voted for Trump, after all.




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