Most people use ‘jobs’ and ‘work’ interchangeably, but they are not the same. Jobs are but one way of getting work done, although the way our economy has evolved over the past two hundred years, jobs have been a very important way of getting work done.
Two things distinguish jobs from other forms of work. First, someone other than the job holder decides what work needs doing, and second the job holder is paid specifically to do this work. It is through the payment of these wages that job holders earn the money they need to live the rest of their lives. It is the collective spending of these wages that constitutes the demand that drives our economic system. For much of the twentieth century, in Australia at least, a job also meant an amount of work for which the job holder was paid a living wage, but not any more.
There is much discussion about whether jobs for humans are disappearing as robots and other forms of artificial intelligence become more sophisticated. Just how many human jobs are threatened is the subject of great debate, but what is clear is that artificial technology capable of doing a lot of the work that needs doing is advancing at a great rate.
For those steeped in our current economic framework this is a huge challenge. Without jobs the economy stalls, and a faltering economy is a great source of angst. Our politicians clearly recognise this angst, since they all promise to create more jobs if we only vote for them.
If we were prepared to restrict the use of robots we could probably create all the jobs we wanted, but there seems to be little likelihood that this will happen; and many people don’t even want it to happen since a lot of the jobs being replaced are either boring or dangerous or both.
But while we continue to believe that the only responsible way to put enough money in the hands of enough people to keep the economy moving is to give them a job we either have to hope that new jobs for people will continue to be created, or we do have to artificially restrict the use of new technology replacing people.
There other ways to think about this problem. While there may be a shortage of jobs, there is no shortage of money. Money supply has been steadily increasing as entrepreneurs come up with innovative ways to invest, and banks continue to lend to those willing to take on risk. And money doesn’t disappear when a business replaces human workers with robots, it is simply distributed in a different way (presumably it helps create more profit for the business owner).
Observations like these cause some people to reframe the challenges facing future workers as being more about the creation and distribution of money than it is about the creation of jobs.
Some call for a universal basic income (or as I prefer to call is a citizens’ dividend to reflect that what it really means is distributing some of the wealth created in a country to all those who helped create it), but if that is a step too far, others call for a reduction in taxes on employing people (such as payroll and income taxes) and an increase in taxes on the use of artificial technology to replace people. Such changes would allow governments to redistribute money in different ways. Some have even suggested paying wages to robots and then giving a robot to every citizen when they are born and letting them live off the earnings of their robot.
This last suggestion is interesting because it reminds us that robots have no use for money. Money was created purely by humans to facilitate transactions between humans. How the money system operates is an entirely human creation, if it isn’t working we can change it. Two hundred years ago when the only way we knew to get most work done was through human labour it made sense to encourage people to work by creating jobs that paid them a wage that they could spend as they needed. Two hundred years later when we now know many ways of getting work done without using human labour, perhaps it is worth thinking about new ways of putting the money the economy needs to survive into the hands of all the people who make up the economy.