Is there life after work? The welfare state in a future without jobs

Peter Frase argues that liberals are wrong to focus on universal employment:

“Forget job creation, we need to do more job killing. Cutting the military budget, reining in the financial sector, and dismantling the prison-industrial complex will destroy many jobs. So, too, would a single payer national health care system: the Republican attacks on Obama’s ‘job-killing’ health care law were lies, but only because Obama’s plan is so inadequate. As long as the left remains fixated on more wage labor as the solution to our problems, we’ll always be vulnerable to the argument that the socially beneficial changes we want will ‘kill jobs’.”

True progress, argues Frase, is providing the social and economic resources to everyone to allow each person to make meaningful choices about their lives. Jobs in the post-industrial economy do not provide a secure route to this kind of choice. Moreover, many of the jobs in our economy contribute to environmental destruction, perpetual war, and social inequality.

Frase has dedicated several blog posts (each word is a link) to the idea that there are better alternatives to the labor market, and in any case, that in a mechanized world there can no longer be full employment. The welfare state should focus on ensuring a universal basic income (UBI) for all rather than making social support dependent on being in the labor market.

Is the UBI a good idea?

I would argue that the UBI is a socialist pipe dream: no viable political movement in the United States could bring it about, at least not without radically altering public opinion about welfare entitlement. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the UBI is a bad idea. Whether the UBI is a bad or good idea depends first, on how much valuable economic activity would be eliminated if workers exited the labor market to accept the UBI, second, whether society could afford the UBI, and third, on whether people subsisting on the UBI could pursue meaningful and fulfilling lives without work.

The economic viability of the UBI depends on how workers and producers respond to certain incentives. A lump sum transfer of money from capitalists to workers is not inefficient, but if the transfer is large enough it will lure some workers out of the labor force and increase the wages of those who stay behind. If the economy is operating at full capacity, then fewer goods will be produced and aggregate income will decrease. So our collective ability to sustain a UBI scheme depends on the participation of enough workers to keep industry humming, not to mention the continued willingness of capitalists to organize production and foster innovation. Make the cost of the UBI high enough, and the system will be both too costly to sustain and too attractive to people who might otherwise engage in productive economic activity.

The sunny side of mechanization

Mechanization changes the story. If, instead of eliminating jobs on the assembly line or the checkout stand, we fill those jobs with robots, then the displaced workers may not be needed in the economy. This is a specter that haunts most liberal economists, but Frase thinks that it poses a unique opportunity to liberate workers from degrading and difficult jobs:

“the promise of widespread automation is that it could enact just such a liberation, or at least approach it—if, that is, we find a way to deal with the need to generate power and secure resources. But recent technological developments have taken place not just in the production of commodities, but in the generation of the energy needed to operate the automatic factories and 3-D printers of the future. Hence one possible post-scarcity future combines labor-saving technology with an alternative to the current energy regime, which is ultimately limited by both the physical scarcity and ecological destructiveness of fossil fuels.”

This brave new automated world sets the stage for the kind of post-industrial paradise that Marx envisioned, where people are free to set out on their own creative enterprises (if they want to) and the labor market no longer organizes many people’s day-to-day experiences. To bring this about would require that capitalists that replace their workforce with robots would need to compensate the displaced workers, and the UBI would become the default method for providing this compensation. How extensive this compensation could be would depend on how much we could automate the world, and what kinds of resources we would need to provide to everyone in order to allow them to pursue leisure and consumption without destroying the environment.

Personal fulfillment and work

What does life look like for people living on the UBI without work? In particular, can people be entirely fulfilled without work? It has become a mantra in our society that work is necessary not just for financial survival but also for personal fulfillment. Part of this perception is fed by experience – we know that people that get laid off experience a precipitous drop in life satisfaction and are more susceptible to personal problems like depression and drinking. We do not exactly know how much this decline in life satisfaction is due to the intrinsic value of work versus the stigma of being jobless in a world where we have been taught that idleness is a moral failing.

A longitudinal study of German workers found that those that lost their jobs were much less likely to be satisfied during their working years, but once they reached retirement age their satisfaction dramatically rebounded. The explanation, Frase believes, is that once in the retirement group, they no longer dealt with the daily stigma of being jobless:

“The unemployed become happier, it turns out, as soon as they stop thinking of themselves as workers. This result suggests that the harm caused by unemployment has a lot to do with the way we, as a society, regard the unemployed. We treat paying work as a sure mark of a person’s worth, even though this conviction has no coherent rationale.”

There’s probably a lot to the argument that people could be very happy without work, but people need something to fulfill themselves emotionally and spiritually. Creating value, rather than “make work,” would require changing how people see their lives, and what activities we can collectively offer people that no longer have skills required by the market economy. Gardening, organizing community activities, knitting, blogging (ha), can all be fulfilling non-market activities, but it’s not clear that everyone can find a place for herself in a labor-less world. Then again, the instinctive reflex that work matters for self-fulfillment may reflect a lack of imagination – most of human history was a world without labor markets, perhaps most of the human future will be too.

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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6 Responses to Is there life after work? The welfare state in a future without jobs

  1. The main problem with this idea although inevitable it will mean a rethink of the way we deal with the system of reward for effort. The have will want the system to stay just as it is this is already obvious now in the UK with the government’s campaign against the unemployed. It is a fact that we are at an age now that there will never be enough jobs for the number of people that are out of work and no matter how you adjust the figures; without some major disaster the number of people who will have no work can only increase. The more you replace the workforce with machinery the greater the number of unemployed there will be.

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  3. An American says:

    You’re right that such an overhaul of the system would require not just allocated resources but a shift in the public mindset that people who do not work “respectable positions” are somehow lazy, stupid or criminals — or spoiled elitists who’ve “never worked a day in their lives.” My father works as a prison guard and my mother was once a school-teacher in low-income areas, where by and large, and rather tragically, the majority of students end up in some sort of prison environment. In fact some of her former students are housed at the complex where my father works! To “destroy” the “prison-industrial complex” would put my father out of work, and decimate my potential as well — it sounds selfish in a way, that it is only due to his salary keeping people behind bars who might have done better had they been given more opportunities and encouragements, that his daughter is able to pursue her goals of higher education. But there is undoubtedly a form of survivor guilt at play here, at least for me once I think about it.

    Furthermore, if any of these inmates ever leave the institution once and for all (and don’t fall to recidivism), it is highly unlikely if not impossible that they will ever be employed in “meaningful” positions, as more and more employers even at low-wage fast-food joints refuse to hire ex-cons after managers put their names in a background check. Legally they can hire or not hire whomever they choose, for whatever reason, that they do not have to justify. A study by researchers at U. of Chicago and MIT even demonstrated that “ethnic-sounding names” on resumes was linked to fewer callback rates for jobs than Eurocentric names (Bertrand and Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?” 2009).

    Achievement of such a goal as presented here is not simply a matter of replacing workers with robots or eliminating/gutting entire industries or government agencies, but the more difficult (if not impossible) work of transforming the minds and hearts of the public and the powers that be. And besides the issue of the public being “biased” towards work and not welfare, there is also the issue of (arguably justified) public fear of automation and technology, and government/corporate usage of these things as a way of generating profit and displacing human employees. Who’s to say that once the companies no longer have to pay people (even the meager nickel per hour for toddlers in China), that they won’t hoard one hundred percent of the profits and leave not even crumbs for the mass of human beings? There too lies a dilemma: targeting the heart of the corporation-government complex by targeting minds and hearts of business leaders. This too would seem an impossible task as sociopathic-narcissistic traits seem to go hand-in-hand with aggressive achievement and high-powered positions (such as politicians and CEOs), and furthermore that the higher one gets in the income brackets, the less one seems to care about the “little people.” (In other words, the higher one gets on the Ferris wheel, the less visible the crowds below appear.) Now, if we could replace CEOs and politicians with trained monkeys, that would be an altogether different scenario. Maybe instead of generating profits they’d produce the entire works of Shakespeare. 😉

    • rperlberg says:

      Regarding hoarding 100% of the profits, there’s no point in having money if you don’t spend it. The people with money will want to use it to buy things and that creates jobs, or at least creates an economy capable of supporting everyone.

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