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Innovating for a jobless society



Ford have been building cars in Geelong for 91 years. But now their factory is quiet and their former employees are coming to terms with a new reality.

Ford factory GeelongGrowing up in Geelong, many friends worked at Ford, or Alcoa, Pilkington or any of the other allied suppliers. As each of these stopped manufacturing in Victoria's second city, employers and governments promised retraining. But where are the jobs? Factories are quickly moving to a 'lights out' operation, with no lights, no air conditioning — and no humans.

Modelling suggests nearly 5000 Geelong residents will lose their jobs to the decline in manufacturing before the end of 2017, and 200,000 nationwide. Can we find new-economy jobs for every one of them?

Futurists are divided. Around 52 per cent of respondents to a Pew Research survey point out that since the dawn of the industrial revolution we've seen that for every job replaced by machines, new jobs have been created. They see no problem with 200,000 job losses as they believe that jobs we've never thought of will open up.

But the remainder see that technology is now at a point where we're not just retraining one group of people — as weavers are replaced by the automatic loom — but where the majority of jobs will be replaced by robots. And this will happen far faster than we are prepared for.

Ray Kurzweil, futurist at Google, says in The Law of Accelerating Returns that the rate of change in technology means 'the next 20,000 years of human progress will be compressed into the next hundred'. Extrapolating, this means we will see the changes we have seen in the 250 years since the start of the industrial revolution compressed into the next 20.

With that number of displaced jobs in such a short time, we cannot replace them with jobs we cannot today imagine.

The only jobs truly safe from the coming robot revolution are pink collar jobs: the service sector, where the output of the work is humanity — rather than cars, food or computer code. While a hairdresser can be replaced by a robot, a machine cannot reassure you that the new style suits you. Coffee pods can win taste tests against baristas, but that's not the point of going to your favourite hipster cafe each morning. However there is a limit to the number of hairdressers and baristas we can find work for.


"Innovation isn't about replacing taxis with ride-sharing apps on your phone. It's not about eking out one more mega-watt from a wind turbine. Those are merely evolutionary progress. What are we planning for a society in which there is no paid work for most people?"


So maybe we need to rethink work.

Work, as we see it today, is the means by which we distribute our common wealth. 'We've wealth for toil' is not only the accepted practice, it's in the national anthem. Our current affairs programs teach us that not working is 'dole bludging' and to be without paid employment probably means you're a 'welfare cheat'. Wealth for toil, however, is a surprisingly new concept.

Before the European invasion, Indigenous Australians had no need for resumes and references. In the Middle Ages in Europe there were no unemployment figures because you either worked on the land you were born on, or for the same land-owner your parents did. We changed the way we live, survive and thrive in the past, and now it's time to do it again.

Industry itself is not going to be the answer to a post-work society. Industry exists to make money for its owners. And replacing expensive humans with cheap replaceable robots is a simple decision. If employers were going to stave off the oncoming revolution in the short term, they'd be making poor economic decisions and will, in the medium to long term, fail as their competitors produce more for less.

This means the answer needs to come from the workers — and by extension, the governments that should represent their interests.

Governments are ultimately left with two possible solutions. Currently we are entering this workless future with the Luddite approach of denial and destruction. Any attempt to think beyond 'work' is ridiculed as we desperately attempt to create work — just to maintain the status quo.

But instead, if Malcolm Turnbull wants Australia to be an innovation nation, he needs to be encouraging programs and experiments that are 'post work'. To be truly innovative means to think beyond what we currently accept. Innovation isn't about replacing taxis with ride-sharing apps on your phone. It's not about eking out one more mega-watt from a wind turbine. Those are merely evolutionary progress. What are we planning for a society in which there is no paid work for most people?

One innovative solution is known as the Universal Basic Income. This idea provides a basic income to every person, regardless of employment status. In his book Where do we go from here? Martin Luther King Jr saw guaranteed income as a way to end poverty. 'The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.'

US economist and libertarian, Milton Freidman advocated for a minimum guaranteed income via a 'negative income tax'. Even Napoleon said we are all 'entitled by birthright to a share of the Earth's produce sufficient to fill the needs of [our] existence'. 

If we fail to act, if we wait for the worst before we react, we will be responding to near-universal poverty and collapsed economies. But acting requires a courage not seen in governments for at least the past few decades. It requires thinking beyond the next election cycle.

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords. But I suspect our governments will not.


Rick MeashamRick Measham is an executive in the Tech industry, watching the way we work today and looking to the future. He tweets about technology and work at @divZero_. All views are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

This is the latest article in Eureka Street's ongoing series on work.

Topic tags: Rick Measham, work



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Existing comments

I've been hearing doomsayers mouthing these luddite prophecies from "experts" all my life. And as here, it's always been about the "next" 10 or 20 years. Somehow, we're always just on the cusp! In reality, mechanization and robotization have created more huge numbers of opportunities for individuals to create wealth: the array is far more varied and finely tuned in today's capitalist society than it was before the industrial revolution. Even quadraplegics can create incomes for themselves, when they've have been dependent on charity for most of history. Human wants are infinite, human imagination is endless, and provided humans are left to freely create wealth for themselves, they will do so, to the benefit of all mankind. But one sure fire way of stopping that process dead in its tracks is to grant everyone a guaranteed income. Have a look at the aboriginal remote communities to see the disastrous effects it has on the human spirit.

HH | 06 November 2016  

Great article replete with a futurist outlook. Homo Deus by Harari is a look at the future where work is no longer available because of the use of robots which will become increasingly able. A universal basic income becomes a viable alternative. It's ssential to understand the concept by reading widely. Some futurists tie this UBI to restricting working hours and opening borders. The concept has been tried already.

GAJ | 07 November 2016  

"Maybe we need to rethink work" - yes, but that's not enough; a "Basic Universal Income" has got to come. It could be partially funded from the taxes that it would enable everyone to pay. But the main source of revenue should come from the profits that technological innovation enables a small section of the population to make. The essential element required in our thinking is that the profits innovators make as they do away with the need to employ people are not just the result of their own efforts. They need, and rely totally on, a society within which they are able to function. That society's contribution to the creation of their wealth must be seen to oblige them to reciprocal payments towards the support of people whose employment they have made redundant. The legislation would be hard to frame, but a new sort of social contract must be devised to suit this moment. Those who profit from a society must be charged with contributing to its maintenance. Anyhow, if innovation destroys society how can even the income of the innovators who exploit it be maintained?

Joe Castley | 07 November 2016  

Come the new revolution! Revolutions are capable of disaster when introspection rules and the cause for revolution can't be relegated to the past. Workers who wish to be stuck in the past and ignore opportunity are millstones around the neck of progress and elevation of the human spirit.

john frawley | 07 November 2016  

I believe Rick is right in his assessment that there will simply not be enough jobs for everyone currently being made redundant by technology. The Universal Basic Income is extremely essential in this new era. And I thank Joe for the arguments he raises as to why those making today's profits need to help provide the revenue for those many missing out. You're absolutely right Joe when you say that, "Those who profit from a society must be charged with contributing to its maintenance." Thank you Rick and Joe for pointing to a future filled with hope.

robert van zetten | 07 November 2016  

I often wonder what my grandchildren will face when they grow up. As a young person in the 1950/60's the future seemed endless. It was thought that working hours would decrease and with wealth, leisure would be our future. Fast forward to when my children were my age in the '50/60's - the 1980's the future for them was quite uncertain, Paul Keating famously said; "this is the recession that we had to have" . Education was seen as the key to a good well paid job so we slaved to send them to good schools. Fortunately they all have good jobs- in the service industry with two in IT.As Rick notes the days of the 'blue collar worker' in Australia are numbered, even the so called service industries are going to the Philippines or India .How many times have you rung a call centre for one of our major banks and ended up speaking to a person with a foreign accent? Maybe the days of Governments depending in income tax to fund them are ending. A move to taxing enterprises, sadly mostly foreign owned will be urgently needed to save widespread social disruption.

Gavin | 07 November 2016  

HH - Suffering in remote aboriginal communities is not the result of granting a guaranteed income. Rather it is part of the terrible consequences of white colonisation and the devastation of the culture of the first peoples of this country. We, the invaders, have caused the disastrous effect on their human spirit.

robert van zetten | 07 November 2016  

Good idea, but please read Modern Monetary Theorist Bill Mitchell's work on basic income vs job guarantee. It can be found at bilboeconomicsoutlook.net , along with plenty of other food for thought. There are plenty of things that need doing in society, so I think we can rethink work and find plenty to do to improve our lives collectively and individually.

karen | 07 November 2016  

That is a good article Rick. My father worked for Marfleet & Weight Engineers and they employed hundreds of workers in heavy engineering. They built the turbines for the Snowy. The dredge for Hazlewood Power station (closed last week). Gradually as tenders went to the Koreans, or Japanese, pipelines and Dam gates were lost to overseas competitors. You can buy a Ford Ranger in Thailand for $31k. Here is costs $55k. We cant compete with labor costs. The whole notion of free trade is a nonsense when you compete with Asia. It cant work and it wont work. All Toyota Commercials and Ford Commercials are made in Thailand. Fiat, the biggest car company in the world builds cars untouched by human hands. So what are Australians to do? Apr 27, 2016 - Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced all 12 of Australia's next fleet of submarines will be built in Adelaide from local steel, with France winning the hard-fought global race for the $50 billion contract. This wouldnt happen in Italy or in Japan. It wouldnt happen in the US. So why is it happening here? Our politicians cant see the wood for the trees. What Turnbull should be concentrating on is building more goals and detention centres to house the ever increasing hopelessly and permanently unemployed in this economically doomed nation or just sell all the entire infrastructure to the Chinese.

francis Armstrong | 07 November 2016  

RVZ, thanks, but I disagree and so do many aboriginal leaders who see the "sit-down money" situation as a huge problem. Also the majority of aborigines are integrated into the mainstream economy, taking no sit-down money, working alongside their fellow Australians and exhibiting none of the hardships endured in the remote communities. Guaranteed income is like government foreign aid: it robs people of the incentive to look after themselves. This has been proven time and again the world over.

HH | 07 November 2016  

Meaningful work is a necessary part of the human condition - making a contribution to society. Capitalism has never been able to provide that for everyone and it will get worse. The solution lies in socialism where resources are shared, hospitals, schools, aged and community care properly staffed. Public transport and housing, development of a green economy are part of a future for people. There is so much that could be done. There are so many important people- related service jobs but capitalism only provides them if a profit can be made. It will take socialism where the motive ceases to be profit and becomes people's interests and the planet.

Anna Pha | 07 November 2016  

I couldn't agree more. Perhaps something in the way of a universal age pension that everyone (regardless of assets and income) receives in NZ when they turn 65. may be the way to go.

William Stockwell | 07 November 2016  

OK HH, let us, for the sake of the argument, assume that you are right. Describe for us what the pattern of employment might be in Geelong in 5 years' time if only people there 'were left to freely create wealth for themselves'.

Ginger Meggs | 08 November 2016  

Socialism has always failed. Even the voluntary socialism of the early Christians - perhaps the most saintly community in history - fell apart in a short time, as St Paul's letters attest. The socialism of the fervent Mayflower pilgrims led to famine within 2 years. The 20th century is littered with the failures of socialism. There is not a single successful instance of a state or central authority dictating the means of production, distribution and exchange for any length of time. Capitalism, on the other hand, has lifted billions out of poverty since the 18th century. It's obviously consonant with Christianity. Joseph and his foster-son Our Lord were carpenters, Peter a fisherman, Paul a tent-maker, Luke a doctor. Respectable capitalist occupations: all making a living - ie, a profit - from exchange.

HH | 08 November 2016  

Dear HH, I think it should be pointed out that carpentry, fishing, tent-making, medicine, are all perfectly respectable and necessary occupations in a socialist environment, as well as a capitalist one. The work needs to be done, no matter what the economic/financial structure of the society. And as for societies that have operated as centrally controlled systems: for most of history many, many, states have operated as kingdoms, princedoms, or similar. Not socialist, but certainly not democratic, and not capitalist in the sense you use it either. And we should remember that, recently, in the GFC, the United States could have failed had the government not had the resources to bail out the bastions of private enterprise.

Vin Victory | 08 November 2016  

Futurologists are a bit like scryers: of dubious real use. The latte set rave about many things. It is a pity they were silent on the closure of the Australian automotive industry under Abbott's watch. That is probably his worst political cockup bar none. We need to look at Germany which has never destroyed its manufacturing industry as the Anglophone world has done with such lunatic glee.

Edward Fido | 08 November 2016  

VV, thanks, but, unless you have better information: Joseph and his Foster-Son, Peter and Paul, etc, were not engaging in their trades as charitable enterprises. They were running businesses. They were thus capitalists. Granted: Our Lord did not invoice the five thousand for the loaves and fishes. But that was a miraculous event. Unfortunately, socialists too often presume these to be natural occurrences.

HH | 09 November 2016  

Dear HH, i guess neither of us have any real knowledge as to how Joseph managed his carpentry workshop. It is quite possible that the village worked as a co-operative. A form of socialism. "From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs". Or perhaps he was a hard-headed business man, and refused to supply the widow with the wooden tray she needed, because of lack of funds?

vin victory | 09 November 2016  

1. The concept of UBI is to make everyone a rentier aristocrat living off a dividend from the productive capacity of the economy, like the nobles of feudal times. But, what productive capacity? Unless Australia actually trades something with the world, there will be no profitable industries the taxes on which can be used to fund a UBI that is more liveable than the dole. We still need to create jobs, even if they are only for robots who, like people, will be competing with their robot brothers and sisters overseas. 2. Is a UBI affordable? Multiplying (2011 ABS statistics) 8.4 million households by the then median income of just under $50000 is $420 billion. But the Commonwealth’s gross income in that period was just under $330 billion.

Roy Chen Yee | 11 November 2016  

Amen to Rick's thinking. The reason our ( and the world's) economy is sluggish is because the spending population doesn't have the money to spend. This has resulted from the replacement of labour with capital (financing technology) and this doesn't take the responsibility of supporting the population. New ways have to be found of financing population support and UBI seems the best way to do it. Yes, it has to be financed and this means that a different tax profile is necessary. We certainly have to think outside the square because the present economics is not working. Investing capital to decrease labour input will only make the situation worse. In the past we have always had some new market we can tap, but now this is failing because globalisation has put us all in the same boat. Now there are not enough jobs to go around. UBI can also lead to greater efficiency as it would lead to a huge decrease in compliance costs of the dole, but as long as the saved money is spent in the same community it should balance out. The gain is in removing the angst in complying with the myriad of regulations of receiving the present dole.

John | 13 November 2016  

Ginger Meggs: That's a good question you pose to HH. What will the 5000 unemployed in Geelong do to "freely create wealth for themselves" in five years' time? What else but go on to a pre-cursor of Universal Basic Income known anachronistically as "Job Search"? So, HH, it seems to me that the socialism that you fear (with some justification) cannot be avoided unless our society starts to reconceptualise things in line with the indicators in Rick's article.

Chris Davidson | 13 November 2016  

Spot on...a prophet in our time!

Pamela Jones | 13 November 2016  

(Sorry: been away.) VV: Given there's absolutely no evidence Nazareth was a socialist co-operative, and there’s strong evidence that the region as a whole functioned as a typical province of the Roman empire economically speaking, I'd say you have Buckley's trying to prove your point. But you're welcome to try! There's no disputing, though, that St Paul was a capitalist tent-maker. (Perhaps he hadn't attended enough re-education classes?) GM and CD: to put the matter in perspective: Geelong's economy was artificially boosted by subsidies to the automotive industry. This drained the economy elsewhere in Australia. So at the very least, cet. par., the economy of Australia ( including poor taxpayers) is better off for the end of a failed experiment in crony capitalism/socialism. Now, as to Geelong itself in the future: if, say, it were to be classed as a Special Economic Zone, with low to no taxes (income or company), minimum red tape for business start ups, no labour laws above and beyond the laws of contract and tort (so no minimum wage laws, etc) and no trade restrictions I have every confidence it would do as well as the plethora of Special Economic Zones that have been spreading through the world over recent decades. Of course, I can't predict precisely how the Geelongaise (?) would creatively exploit this window of wealth-creating opportunity, any more than one could have in 1950 predicted precisely how the Hong Kongese would create wealth, or what any creative person would produce precisely once they were free to create. All that is certain is that for a man or woman, economic freedom is the precondition for wealth creation and socialism is the death knell. So the 20th century has taught, ad nauseam.

HH | 14 November 2016  

(Sorry: been away.) VV: Given there's absolutely no evidence Nazareth was a socialist co-operative, and there’s strong evidence that the Palestine/Judea region as a whole functioned as a typical province of the Roman empire economically speaking, I’d say the default assumption is that Joseph worked for a profit. There's no disputing, though, that St Paul was a capitalist tent-maker. (Perhaps he hadn't attended enough re-education classes?) GM and CD: to put the matter in perspective: Geelong's economy was artificially boosted by subsidies to the automotive industry. This drained the economy elsewhere in Australia and deprived poorer Australians of cheap cars. So at the very least, cet. par., the economy of Australia is better off for the end of an expensive, failed experiment in crony capitalism/socialism. Now, as to Geelong itself in the future: if Sir John James Cowperthwaite’s policy of laissez faire for Hong Kong were imposed on Geelong and its region, why wouldn’t the Hong Kong miracle that lasted for 50 or more years be repeated? Geelong has considerably more natural resources to start with (e.g. fresh water and arable land), better infrastructure than HK had in the 1950s, and wouldn’t have to cope with hundreds of thousands of penniless refugees from China and Vietnam arriving every few years as HK did. Naturally, I can’t predict exactly how that miracle would unfold, just as no one – not even brilliant free market economist - would have been able to predict precisely the industrial economic evolution of the Hong Kong economy back in 1950 (or Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, etc). Human creativity has surprising twists and turns. But I’d put a lot of money on a steady and steep growth in per capita income and low unemployment for Geelong, as was the record in HK for decades.

HH | 14 November 2016  

"I’d say the default assumption is that Joseph worked for a profit." Whether or not one wishes to call him a capitalist, the word deriving from the Latin for head of livestock of which he had many, Abram, in leaving his kinship network for an uncertain atomic existence in a foreign land, with no children for most of that time, had nothing but wits and some livestock to barter and trade in a milieu where there was no state or tribal support. At the very least, that makes him a free enterpriser.

Roy Chen Yee | 14 November 2016  

Excellent point, Roy.

HH | 17 November 2016  

"governments that should represent their interests" Governments which represent the interests of workers! When? Where?

Sheelah Egan | 05 January 2017  

Thanks for this important series on work, and this important contribution. Apart from not welcoming the robot overlords, this aged pensioner luddite wish the sentiments could be widely spread and debated.

Pamela Jones | 05 January 2017  

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