Future lives of leisure, not work?

Technological advances mean that many workers will lose their jobs to automation – but billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates say increasing the potential output of every human being is always a good thing

Buffett says: “The idea that more output per capita should be harmful to society is crazy:

  • If one person could push a button and turn out everything we turn out now, is that good or bad for the world?

  • You would free up all kinds of possibilities for everything else

In the coming years, an increasing number of jobs are likely to be on the chopping block:

  • Nearly half of US jobs will be replaced by robots and automated technology in the next 10 to 20 years according to Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University, with transportation, logistics, office management and production workers likely to lose out first

  • In less developed countries, the World Bank estimates roughly two thirds of all jobs are susceptible to replacement by automation

But Buffett notes that the trend towards automation replacing lower-skilled labour is not new:

  • If we were here in 1800 and conducting this, somebody would point out that eventually tractors and better fertilisers would come along and 80% of the people now employed on the farm would fall to 2 or 3% in two hundred years, so what are we going to do with all these people

  • Well, the answer is we release them

  • With fewer people needed to work on farms, more are able to pursue other skills and vocations

Automation ‘enables an opportunity‘ says Gates

Buffett says:

  • “Everything should be devoted initially to getting greater productivity

  • But people who fall by the wayside, through no fault of their own, as the goose lays more golden eggs, should still get a chance to participate in that prosperity

  • And that is where the government comes in

  • A problem of excess really forces us to look at the individuals affected and take those extra resources and make sure they are directed to them in terms of re-education and income policies”

Another billionaire, Ray Dalio, co-chief investment officer of Bridgewater Associates hedge fund, says AI and automation are improving productivity but also causing such a dramatic wealth gap that a national emergency should be declared

He was addressing concerns that machine intelligence might put enough people out of work that the government would have to pay people to live with a cash handout, a concept known as UBI – Universal Basic Income

“My view is that algorithmic/ automated decision making is a two edged sword that is improving total productivity but is also eliminating jobs, leading to big wealth and opportunity gaps and populism, and creating a national emergency – yet no one is seriously examining what to do about it”

Indeed, an Oxfam report found that 82% of the growth in global wealth in the previous year went to the top 1% of individuals ranked by riches – and the bottom 50% had no increase in their wealth

But Dalio believes a cash handout should be a last resort

“I don’t believe that transferring money to people who are unproductive is good for the people or the economy, unless there are no other good alternatives – I believe that it’s both far better, and it’s possible, to find ways for making most of those people productive – so retraining workers to thrive in the new economy should be a top priority for the country” – albeit he’s not optimistic that the skills gap will be suitably addressed

He concludes with:

  • Productivity is good for everyone

  • Unfortunately, it’s not available to everyone

  • That has to change

  • We need leadership that can bring that about

  • Unfortunately, it is more likely that nothing along these lines will be done

Elon Musk, the billionaire founder and owner of Space X and electric car manufacturer Tesla, is more pessimistic:

  • He warns that: “AI poses a vastly bigger threat than North Korea”

  • He believes in the redistribution of all wealth created via a UBI – it’s now ‘inevitable’ – the state will tax technology and handout the spoils to all citizens irrespective of their employment status so all have enough money to be comfortable

But what of the social impact – what about personal fulfilment – will we be happy as a society of benefit claimants, doing nothing for ever and ever – will it be enough just to fill the vacuum with leisure?

John Maynard Keynes, prompted by the mass ‘nervous breakdown’ he saw afflicting the idle rich back in the 30s, resolved that: “a life of leisure would instead offer the chance of great flourishing to those who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself”

In other words, ‘the idler of tomorrow will nourish personal relationships with shared experiences and passions’ – for example, learn to play the piano, discover the wealth of literature, appreciate art, acquire knowledge

Ergo, a Keynesian utopia, a life he called a ‘passionate state of contemplation and communion’

But will such a life suit everyone?

In a society where people work, we all have a source of worth – the market values our labour – strip that away and only the cruellest meritocracy is left

Studies show that, overall, the unemployed are far less happy than those with a job – and note that most lottery winners keep working after their success

Much of any happiness we enjoy is derived from ‘our level of earned career success’

So the life of leisure we seem destined for may not be what we want after all

As the Chinese say: “Be careful what you wish for”

1 comment

    • Tamsin Stanley on September 5, 2017 at 7:48 am
    • Reply

    I wonder if they could measure how much/little of the day/ week needs to be filled with ‘work’ in order for the average adult to enjoy their life and leisure. Perhaps they could study retired folk?

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