Post employment economy

In earlier posts, I expressed some thoughts on the concept of a universal basic income as both a possibility and a necessity in a post-scarcity economy driving largely by automation.   Automation eliminates scarcity and it eliminates employment opportunities for large portions of the population.   In order to continue the consumer economy, there will need to be some form of income that is not a consequence of work.   Since the root goal is to sustain a steady consumer activity, I proposed an alternative of an expense-account approach where people would be compensated for actual receipts of goods and services where each has a particular daily or per-purchase limit.   The more popular alternative of a direct cash transfer would allow for non-consumer behaviors such as savings, investments, or black-market purchases.

In another post, I doubted that all possible jobs would be automated.   In particular, the more dangerous and manual work would probably never be automated.   Jobs like first responders to disasters would probably always be left to humans because either the customized machines can not be built in time, or more likely that the machine failures would be far harder to extract (and get out of the way) than human failures.   I would extend this to most jobs that are very dangerous or require strenuous activities in very difficult conditions.   Such jobs will become even more important in the future, but there will be plenty of people who would qualify to perform the jobs, and many would probably apply for the opening.

I speculate that there will never be a time when there are zero jobs available for humans.   Allow me to call them residual jobs in a fully automated economy, one that delivers a post-scarcity world.   Like the examples I imagined above, these residual jobs are generally very short in duration either due to the limited period of time needed for the task, or due to the high likelihood of some injury making the next candidate better qualified.

Not all of the residual jobs will be dangerous, and perhaps even most will not be too dangerous given post-scarcity access to safety and protection equipment.   There are other residual jobs that may be merely intellectual in nature, in terms of innovative design, or solving some new problem.   Among the resources available in a post-scarcity economy is the resource of man power.   There will be plenty of people who would qualify for just about any job, including those requiring the highest intelligence and training.

For nearly all individuals who will work sometime in their lives, their work history will be short lived and probably intense.   They will spend most of their time not working.  In particular, they will not be employed in careers or even for periods more than a few months.   Instead the work model will be of short term assignments, contracts, or gigs.

Some of these assignments may be recurring, such as seasonal work.   An example is snow removal jobs during the winter season.   It is feasible that the same person may do the same work each season, but there will be large reserve of alternative candidates better qualified as the earlier worker gets older.    Similar examples are in technical or intellectuals fields where most of the productivity comes from the younger end of the qualified pool.

In the futuristic post-scarcity world of full automation and some allowance for continuous consumption by all of the population, there will be an end to employment, and an end to the concept of an income.   People will have their needs satisfied through some expense-compensating system optimized for steady and reliable consumption of goods and services that are available.

There will be jobs that will need to be filled.  These residual jobs will be short and intense and likely more risky than not working at all.   Such jobs may be compulsory rather than voluntary, but for sake of this discussion allow me to assume that such residual jobs will be voluntarily filled.

In cases of disaster recovery or emergency response, there may be plenty of volunteers.   I imagine that near all of the residual jobs will have some sense of emergency or urgency involved, even those requiring intellectual efforts.   Based on current human nature, people tend to volunteer when the need is urgent and they imagine that they are qualified to help.   This may not be the case after a couple generations in a post-scarcity economy where people will have no reason to develop relevant skills or even physical strength and dexterity.   I imagine the future world having a large population, large enough that there will always be an adequate pool of people who voluntarily train themselves as a matter of self improvement even if there is little incentive that they will actually need the effort.   I doubt that a post scarcity world would eliminate crime or international conflicts so there will forever be a need for infantry and police type work and young men will always aspire to qualify for those roles.    There will similarly be a large pool of intellectually inclined individuals self-improving to tackle challenges such as we have seen in recent decades such as with open software initiatives and hacking.

I assume there will always be a portion of the population that will be qualified for the residual jobs that need to be filled.   Given a post-scarcity economy with guaranteed access to satisfying consumption, such a workforce may be a small fraction of the total population, but I imagine that the economy will continue to support a very large population to provide a surplus of qualified workers for the tasks available.

As I mentioned, the jobs are likely to be filled voluntarily.   There is no monetary incentive since the economy satisfied one’s consumption needs without the need for labor as that is the assumption here.   The job itself will reduce one’s leisure time and thus even reduce his consumption of goods and services targeting that leisure.

There will be a risk in these residual jobs.  For the more manual jobs, there will be risk of injury, disability, or even death.   For intellectual jobs, there may be risks of liability or reputation damages for mistakes.

Conversely, the residual jobs will likely provide some form of compensation.   As noted, the compensation is not necessary to satisfy one’s needs because the post-scarcity assumption is that everyone’s needs are satisfied without the need for work.   Instead, the compensation is in the form of investment.   Monetary compensation will go into some form of ownership.   That ownership may be in the form of societal recognition, personal reputation, or skills earned that could only come from the actual practice during a real task.    There is a difference between saving an actual life than from training to perform the actions that could save a life.

I don’t know what happens to the concept of property in the post-scarcity world.   Since most people may live their entire lives with their consumer needs fully satisfied through some expense-account type system, most people may never own property.   It is possible that tangible property ownership will disappear from humans entirely, or be restricted to just a few people or even just one person.    Implicit in the universal access to satisfying consumption is the concept that everyone is effectively a renter but one with no worry about meeting their next rent payment.

Meanwhile, those who do work will gain some form of property.   As mentioned above, it may be in the form of recognition or reputation, but that is a form a property, something that he has but other do not have.   I suspect the compensation will involve property that is more tangible.   At least some tasks will result in a larger stake in some enterprise, or perhaps some control over something physical.

My point here is that this compensation for a residual job is not an income as we understand it in today’s terms.   In modern terms, an income is available for immediate consumption and only optionally available for investment.    The modern environment emphasizes the consumption value of income: the value of income is what it it can buy.   We work for a lifestyle.

In the presumed post-scarcity world, we get the lifestyle without working, without any income.   In the extreme, the only possibility for compensation for residual jobs is in some form of an investment.   From our modern perspective where income is tied to consumption, income will not be a benefit from working.   The future will be a post-income world.

There will be residual jobs.   The jobs may be filled compulsorily or voluntarily, but in either case they will be not be compensated as an income.  Instead there is a form of reputation or some improved status within society.   That status may be simply the accomplishment itself or it may be an appreciated sacrifice.

While this discussion is of a idealistic future, such a future may be a metaphor for modern trends as a growing interest in minimalism or of more focus on investments rather than consumption.   We work for its potential to increase our wealth accumulation, but this is in the broader sense of self improvement, not just monetary wealth.   We choose jobs because of their opportunities to improve ourselves and or reputations.   As we do so, jobs choose us based on what we offer either in terms of skills or reputation.    While we certainly don’t live in a post-scarcity environment, many are making the choice to consume less than they can afford.   This is having economic effects or lower inflation or even the potential for deflation.

There is are different ways to look at work life balance.   Especially during my youth, there was a big emphasis on the balance of work and life, with the implication that the income from work should be spent on life.   Work life balance is a directive to spend the income on consumption.  Even if done wisely toward admirable life goals, it is still consumption.    The justification for work is to live.  But the imperative was to work hard for living a good life, spending far more than what was absolutely necessary to provide basic shelter and food.   The American ideal was to work hard, to advance for higher status and income, in order to have more income where that income can be spent on living a more expensive life.

The alternative perspective is to live in order to work.   Work itself is an investment in living a life.   The point of work is to invest in personal betterment.  The primary purpose of work is to build an investment.  That investment may be monetary, but more often it is an opportunity to practice one’s competency or to experience new opportunities based on competencies or reputations already acquired.

In the idealized post-scarcity world, the only benefit of work is in the investment it earns.   A modern minimalist lifestyle approaches work similarly today.   Should this become widely practiced we would enter a new post-income economy.   This may be occurring before the necessary automation for post-scarcity.

I think the current fear of economic collapse is based in part on this trend toward post-income work, or more specifically, a trend toward minimalist consumption.  Much of the global economy depends on extensive consumption from maximal conversion of income to consumer spending.   A very different economy will be needed if many people shift their income from consumption to investment, especially if that investment is toward personal betterment that may result in lower lifetime earnings.

The concept of widespread access to a steady income is a relatively recent development in human history.  It came from a synergy of the consumer economy.   The consumer economy may steady income possible for many people and that widespread steady source of income made consumer economy possible.   The call for a universal basic income (UBI) comes in part out of a need to keep the modern-innovation of a consumer economy running in spite of a loss of work that can deliver a steady income.

The UBI creates a synthetic form of income necessary to keep the current system running.   Even if tried, it may only temporarily delay the reversion back to a time when the majority of the population did not have steady incomes.   What comes after a fully-automated world may appear more similar to what existed before the consumer economy, though perhaps with less concern about basic nutrition and shelter.   Beyond providing necessities, the purpose of work will be for personal betterment or investment.   People will seek out work for its investment potential rather than its income potential.

Jobs will become just as scarce and as in demand as they were in pre-industrial societies.


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