A World Without Work?

The Danger and the Opportunity

(Photo Credit: Reuters)

It was a tech guy who was one of the first to raise the alarm about tech—specifically, about its impact on workers. In his January 2012 piece, “Race Against the Machine,”1 Erik Brynjolffson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, along with his associate director, Andrew McAfee, wrote that the labor force was in the early throes of a “great restructuring.” They referred to the “end of work,” a term coined by economist Jeremy Rifkin in his eponymously titled 1995 book. Some people with “worthless” skills, they said, had “little to offer employers.”

The authors explored the effects of what they called GPT (General Purpose Technologies), which include electricity and the internal combustion engine that “interrupted and accelerated the normal march of human progress.” They noted, however, that our current moment, with its exponential rate of digital technology development, is unparalleled in human history.

At least as ominous for the prospects of human workers, technology is getting cheaper all the time—making it even more attractive to corporations.

The Question on Everyone’s Mind

At the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the big question was, “In an age of self-driving cars, ever-advancing robotics, and artificial intelligence that can read cancer scans, summarize the action in a baseball game, and translate Tagalog into Tamil, what happens to human workers?” The forum surveyed senior executives from over 350 of the biggest companies in 15 of the world’s major economies, accounting for 65% of the global workforce. These leaders predicted that 7 million jobs could disappear, although growth in some sectors like tech and media could offset those losses somewhat.[ii] Other forecasts are even more grim, although some see opportunity as “creative entrepreneurs” come up with new business models that “combine the swelling numbers of mid-level workers with ever-cheaper technology to create value.”

Radical Idea…Unknown Consequences

Some predict that this coming economic earthquake will displace a large percentage of the global workforce with no opportunity to be retrained and reincorporated back into the system. In light of this, some are proposing the radical idea of just giving everyone money. The idea of the government providing a no-strings-attached basic income is not new. U.S. founding father (and radical firebrand) Thomas Paine brought it up in the 18th century. Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern floated the concept in 1972—his version called for a guaranteed annual income. Finland has come up with a more modest initiative–experimenting with a basic monthly income of $560USD for 2,000 Finnish citizens. Other nations such as Canada, Brazil, and Uganda are weighing similar programs. And in Silicon Valley, the cradle of worker-displacing technology, Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a “growing obsession.” The region’s top startup accelerator, Y Combinator, is launching a pilot experiment in Oakland to provide about 100 families with a minimum wage. Each individual will receive $1,000 to $2,000 a month; recipients will come from across the economic spectrum.Valley investors are also behind an under-the-radar NGO called GiveDirectly, which is in the process of giving all the residents of about 40 Kenyan villages a guaranteed, 12-year-long, presumably “poverty-ending” income.

God and Work

Giving people without work a basic income seems sensible to some on the face of it—if they could work out all the fiscal, political, and even psychological details. However, it is clear in the Bible that work is part of our identity with our Creator God. It is why we were made. We are even commanded to work and warned of the consequences of being lazy and not working. This is a fundamental stewardship principle. Should a universal income be implemented on a massive scale it raises many more questions. What happens to a society where work is not a linchpin of family formation, economic activity, and personal identity? What will people actually do with their time? Nobody really knows, because in one way or another humankind has always worked. The proponents of UBI have an altruistic view of their good intentions…that money will solve the problems of the poor. While money may solve financial problems of the poor, income without work will likely create another host of other challenges and societal problems.

For people of faith who seek to conduct our businesses and lead our organizations guided by a Christian worldview, the notion of such basic income falls short because we know work is good. God intends for us to work. He invented work and assigned the first man a job, putting him in the garden “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15, ESV). The Book of Proverbs has many warnings against idleness (though we should be careful not to conflate the idea of a basic income with “lazy” recipients, the larger message, it seems to me, is that it is good to be busily engaged at something). In the New Testament it is interesting how people are often identified by their occupations: fishermen, tax collectors, wealthy members of the Sanhedrin, tentmakers, centurions, vineyard owners, carpenters, and “sellers of purple.”

Then there’s Ruth, who worked on the margins.

“Leave them for the poor”

Ruth is one of the shorter books in the Old Testament. She’s mentioned mostly because of her role in the lineage of King David—great-grandmother, to be exact. But there’s so much more: her loyalty to her mother-in-law, Naomi, her courage in leaving her people for a new and strange land, her boldness in approaching Naomi’s kinsman (and wealthy vineyard owner) Boaz and requesting permission to glean his barley field. As widows, Naomi and Ruth clung precariously to the bottom rung of society, ignored, even despised—except by God.

Listen to God’s command: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge; neither shall you gather your gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare; neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:9.)

Leave something for someone else. Remember those who don’t have what you have. Give someone a chance.

Inefficient? Yes. Leaving money on the table? Absolutely. Not exactly a textbook example of best practices. However, we need to ask ourselves if this system could be better than government heavily taxing businesses and workers to redistribute wealth in a welfare state. Wouldn’t it be better for people to have an opportunity and work for the aid they receive? While discussing radical ideas is it possible that in this new economy a profound notion is that a business’s most important function is creation of sustainable jobs even more than profit?

I believe God offers us a better practice: that is, a need for us as business leaders, whether running a blue-chip corporation in New York or launching a startup in Austin, to see our vital role not only as economic engines of society but also in helping people live out their God-given design and to find meaningful fulfillment in their work.

This may be needed even more as human workers lose their centrality as the engines of our organizations. I believe most people want to work and to contribute. I know it is God’s desire for them to do so. Given the reality that jobs will be lost in every sector of the economy in the coming years due to automation and technological advancements, how should we as business and organizational leaders respond? Here are a few suggestions.

What We Can Do Right Now

  1. Care for the employees entrusted to us. These are people God has placed in our care. Most organizational leaders will say their greatest assets are their employees. However, upon a closer look many organizations do not have a holistic approach to mentoring, developing, and caring for their staff. I knew of a business owner in Flint, Michigan who, when confronted with poor pay and working conditions for his staff, said he didn’t need to change because, “What other options do they have? This is a good job in Flint and they aren’t going anywhere.” It has been said the most abused resource in the world is people and I have seen it first hand. As leaders we need to know the people we work with and truly care for their long-term development as much as their ability to impact our operational bottom-line.
  2. Provide education and advancement opportunities so our employees are ready for the future. It could be something as simple as starting a book club in the organization, where every month participants read a significant book that helps them understand their world, their work, and the future. We can also encourage our people (at whatever level) to pursue an advanced degree or take classes that will help them perform better in this changing economy. We need to send the message that our organizations encourage lifelong learning.
  3. Offer a certain percentage of “beginner jobs”- in effect, “gleaning” positions that offer an entrée into your company and the opportunity for meaningful advancement. There are many ways to do this with paid and unpaid internships to evaluate those who are willing to work hard and thrive in our organizations. Additionally, businesses can get fixated on job descriptions that demand credentials that are not necessary. There are many who have the work ethic, competence, and character to be star employees in our organizations who just need a chance. I’ve learned that some of my worst hires looked great on paper but could not do the job while others who didn’t have impressive backgrounds but had the intangibles mentioned above became star performers. They just needed someone to give them an opportunity.
  4. Mentorship. The most important thing we can give is mentorship and advice from our experiences. Entrepreneurship at the grass roots level is going to be critical in this new economy. We need a generation of people to be able to create their jobs for the future. Many are willing but need help and guidance from those who have been successful in this area. Partnering with incubators and groups in our local area to help start-ups is critical in helping create an economic revolution from the ground up. Government will never be able to create the number of jobs that will be needed in the future. It will be up to the entrepreneur.

White Paper written by Robert L. Dickie III presented at CEF in San Fransisco, CA 2017.

Sources:

1 Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, “Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Unemployment and the Economy,” MIT Center for Digital Business, January 2012 (No url)

2 Davos info from money.cnn.com. I went back to find article to double-check info and could not find it, and there’s no way of searching the site that I can see. I can keep looking but know there’s a time crunch. Let me know what you want me to do.

3 CNNMoney.com

4 Ivana Kottasova, “Finland is giving 2,000 citizens a guaranteed income,” money.cnn.com, January 3, 2017

5 “Michael Coren, “Y Combinator is running a basic income experiment with 100 Oakland families,” June 01, 2016, qz.com

6 Annie Lowrey, “The Future of Not Working,” Feb. 23, 2017, nytimes.com

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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