To some people, the automation age is flecked with excitement, and for others it’s riddled with fears over job security. That’s understandable, given that service and manufacturing jobs have dwindled as automation increases. Meanwhile, intuitive Artificial Intelligence and robots are being developed with the capacity to conduct surgery all on their own, which can cause anxieties about our value as human capital and our primary means of subsistence.
Automation is also being blamed for wedging a big income gap between the rich and the poor. If a chunky portion of the economy is made up of AI and automation where humans are largely redundant, it trickles the income scales upwards to the rich. It has Bill Gates exhorting a robot tax, and has many economists citing policies such as Universal Basic Income.
And that’s what is needed: radical economic reform to navigate a co-existence with automation.
Back in May, one such idea proposed by The Greens Leader Richard De Natalie ignited the concept of shifting the work week from a five day 8-hour to a four day 6-hour work week, leaving breathing room for activities like sports, leisure, volunteering and creativity on days off. The idea of this policy intends to reshuffle our perception of work, allowing us to unravel our identity outside of our jobs. The foremost benefit this confers is a loosening effect on the crowded job market.
If there’s anything to go by, it appears that employees are embracing the idea of fewer work days (the magic number is three), with opportunities in casual employment increasing by 19%, according to SEEK Employment Trends. A Contracting Consultant from Six Degrees, Natalie Roger explains that firms are trying to attract the best talent, and they are doing this by accommodating flexible working hours and conditions. So, work days and hours might whittle down overall, giving opportunities for more people to earn income.
Automation development strikes me as opportunistic timing for moving away from the rigid five day 9-5 structure, and away from the health crises it can spawn. Taking a step back would help to pursue goals that are intrinsically motivated. Of course, this balancing act is only possible if you don’t have to pay a big portion on the bills.
Luckily, the radical idea of a Universal Basic Income could help serve as a gap-filler for equalizing individuals from the implications of automation. Each person would get an ordained stipend each month from the government, where they could maintain a basic standard of living, with free time for family and intrinsic pursuits.
Having a basic safety net does come with controversy though: will people suddenly become lazy?
That’s not likely, firstly because a higher standard of living is appealing, and there are people who do reap intrinsic rewards from working, given that it challenges them and they have a passion for it. With the rise of automation there will be new jobs and skills to explore. While the industrial revolution informs us that some jobs do become obsolete, it also shows that new opportunities are created, and this time around it’s in technological maintenance, engineering, math and science. This is where a redirection of skills will be channelled to.
What to do if you’re not inclined to retrain in fields with highly technical skills?
Jobs that require creative thinking and human empathy – especially in the healthcare sector where Australia’s ageing population is growing. Besides working for a boss, individuals are also relishing self-determining their income. Nowadays, round the clock internet access and mobile technology has made it easier for individuals to become their own boss through marketing specialist services, locally and across global markets. A study presented by software company Intuit, highlights that 40 per cent of US workers will create their own opportunities by 2020, a global trend that Australia seems to be following.
These are part-time, freelancing, specialist roles, or “contingent workers”. According to Seek Trends, 30% of Australia’s workforce is comprised of these contingent workers; allowing workers to moonlight or crystallize their income from self-employment in what is commonly coined ‘the gig economy’ found on sites like Freelancer, Elance and Etsy. The same trend can be seen with apps like Uber.
It is no surprise that the Australian government and governments around the world are championing the virtues of innovation and entrepreneurship. One of the authors of a paper entitled Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce, Andrew Johnson, said a key takeaway from the report was to focus on entrepreneurism – educating kids on innovating and creating their own jobs instead of heavily relying on businesses to earn their income.
This appears to be one of the main insulators of the job shortfall, but creativity and innovation is also vital for staying competitive in the global marketplace.
Automation can bring excitement in self-determining our future, and it will most likely form a meaningful part of our modern workforce. Humans are good at adapting to ideas that sound radical at the time, but are solutions that turn out to be naturally feasible when the time is right. Out of the box economic reform should at least be considered for limiting the income gap when working alongside automation.
Slapping on Bill Gates’ robot tax could be worth visiting, if all else fails.