Do we all need to work?


I believe that we are entering an unprecedented situation in America (if not the world), where the link between the existence of workers and the need to do work no longer correlates.

We are seeing the ramifications of this today under the guise of unemployment, underemployment, mis-employment (people doing less important jobs) and rampant wage inequality.

There are some interesting proposals being put forward to address this. But first, it might be worth looking at how we got here.

A brief history of American work

Many decades ago, much of our society was an agrarian one. We worked on small family farms, from which we determined our livelihood. We didn’t worry about our “investments” except for the soil, crops, and animals owned. Families had more children then today, as they were needed to work on the farm.

In short, people were needed to do the work.

Our society changed to an industrial one. People moved to more urban areas and worked in factories. Factories were dependent on labor to keep running. The more work they did, the more the factories produced, so people were expected to work as much as possible.

The situation changed, but still: the people were needed to do the work.

Interestingly, our 40 hour work week was popularized by Henry Ford, who didn’t necessarily have worker’s best interests in mind. Instead, he wanted workers to have enough time to be able to spend their earnings.

From this begat the consumer economy.

A briefer history of American productivity

As time went on, productivity increased. A lot. According to the Economic Policy Institute, productivity increased 254% between 1948 and 2011. (Wages increased 113% during this time, for reference.)

Image courtesy Economic Policy Institute
Image courtesy Economic Policy Institute

The results of this, plus the inexorable effects of globalization, have been increasingly felt: jobs have been sent overseas to cheaper markets, and jobs lost to automation.

In short, we don’t need all those humans to run the factories anymore. And if we do, it’s cheaper to find them elsewhere.

The loss of one’s livelihood is painful, and I don’t want minimize it. There are serious mental health problems that happen when people are out of work for the long term.

What problem are we trying to solve here?

But all this brings up a question that not many people are asking right now:

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Do we all need to work a wage-based job? Or is there simply not enough work that needs to go around anymore?

This argument bears more than a cursory thought. With productivity gains increasing continuously, presumably that also refers to the things that sustain life for us such as food and shelter, and not just iPhones. And if we take productivity to mean that “fewer people are needed to do the same work”, then doesn’t it hold that at some point, we won’t “need” everyone to work a job and be paid with a wage? At some point, won’t everything be able to be taken care of for all by a fewer number of people?

Maybe the reason why so many people are out of work, and so many other people are in low-wage jobs is because we don’t actually “need” them anymore.

(I’m putting “need” in quotes because I want to stress that it is an economic need, not a personal need.)

Why we have $7.50 jobs today

As I said, I believe that the link between the existence of workers and the need to do work no longer correlates strongly.

And if you think about it, that link is tenuous at best in any organized system. Why would we even assume that just because a certain number of people show up, that there would be the right amount of work for them. Why not too much work, or too little?

Let’s all admit that the $7.50 job (eventually to replaced when mandatory $15/hour laws sweep the nation) is abhorrent, especially when staffed by someone working full time who needs to support themselves or their family.

(And don’t tell me that they are lazy and not trying hard enough. Your lack of empathy isn’t helpful here.)

Maybe that job’s painful existence stems from the fact that we might have a system where people need to find jobs in order to survive, but we don’t actually need them to do these jobs. And because we don’t value the work, we can assign a negligible wage.

In short, we’re screwing ourselves by claiming that we all need to work, but that we don’t really have anything for all of us to do.

Basic Income

There are people who are realizing that the lack of correlation (or rather, its negative impact to people) needs a solution, or at least a rethink.

One solution I’ve heard is (Universal) Basic Income. The definition of Basic Income is: “income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.

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It is differentiated from the welfare system, which is designed to be a temporary social safety net, by being “irrespective of any income from other sources” and “paid without requiring the performance of any work or the willingness to accept a job if offered“.

Basic income is an instant and fantastic litmus test in order to determine one’s own level of societal empathy. Which of the following fits more with your gut reaction?

Option A: “We need to support people such that everyone is able to be able to live.”

Option B: “You’re asking me to support a plan where we pay people who aren’t working?”

You don’t need to tell me, just be honest with yourself.

I admit that the idea feels radical to me. Just paying people to live seems like it cuts away at the social contract: “Work hard and you will be rewarded.

But then again, hasn’t our social contract been broken already? I don’t know about you, but I certainly work less hard than someone who works in fast food, construction, or many other fields, and I make more money than they do.

There are many reasons to support basic income, but efficiency is a compelling one. When you build a system that no longer forces people to work in jobs that don’t need to be done (or aren’t valued by society), people won’t do them. That is fine.

And while we’re at it, when you give people access to preventative health care (something this scheme could presumably do), then that is more efficient (read: cheaper) than dealing with emergencies down the road. That also is fine.

Will people just stop working if they get a check every month? Well some might, sure. But we don’t need to wonder, as we can watch what’s happening. At this very moment, Finland and The Netherlands have been experimenting with this, and more recently Ontario in Canada has announced a pilot Universal Basic Income program.

Early days for a radical idea

The work/worker correlation problem is just starting to take hold in our society, and over time I expect it will grow, at least as long as productivity gains outstrip our human needs.

Basic Income is a response to this problem. It’s impossible to argue that our system is working for everyone, but it seems obvious that it’s not working for an increasing number of people. That is not acceptable. We can and must do better.

But enough about me. What do you think about Basic Income? Do you feel like there’s enough work for everyone?

One Comment

  1. mpinard

    Found this in my bookmarks, and wondering what you’d say on this issue now, when you’ve got so much more ammunition for argument! At this very moment, Republicans in Congress are arguing that UI extension of benefits encourages people not to work…and that’s bad during an epidemic. Aghhhhhh. I’m for UBI.

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