But it increasingly looks like many of us may be out of work someday anyway — thanks to technology.
As society moves into what World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution, hardware and software bots will replace huge numbers of workers at an accelerated pace.
A 2016 World Bank analysis estimated that roughly two-thirds of all jobs in developing nations are susceptible to automation, but large numbers of jobs in developed nations will be eliminated as well.
Are we really facing a future where huge swaths of humanity will be doing nothing and earning nothing, grinding the global economy to a halt?
Not necessarily. The future may just be breathtakingly different than we imagine right now.
Already there are proposals to offset the societal impact of robots.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates recently floated the idea of taxing them and using the funds to retrain people who have lost their jobs to automation. Robots themselves, of course, can’t pay tax (at least not yet …) but the companies that prosper from them certainly could.
“Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things,” Gates said in an interview this year with Quartz. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”
Gates isn’t alone in this view. For example, in February 2017 a European Parliament proposal to tax robots was narrowly defeated.
Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk and others go beyond the idea of a robot tax, arguing that society will need to give people a basic universal income to replace income lost due to technology.
This is not a blue-sky idea; some jurisdictions are already running trials to see how it might work, among them Finland, three towns in Ontario, Canada, and several cities in the Netherlands. The start-up incubator Y Combinator is running a privately funded pilot program in Oakland, California.
Most proponents seem to generally agree that the basic universal income would be a bare minimum needed to get by. But there is no agreement on what would fund it. A robot tax? A consumption tax? A wealth tax? Or what the tax levels would need to be, since funding would presumably come in part from transfers from existing programs.
At the February 2017 World Government Summit in Dubai, Musk spoke out about the future need for some kind of universal basic income. But he also pointed out, “The much harder challenge is, how are people going to have meaning? A lot of people derive their meaning from their employment. So if there’s no need for your labor, what’s your meaning? … That’s a much harder problem to deal with.”
Which brings us back to the misery of not working. What would motivate us to get going in the morning to seek meaning if not for work?
Martin Ford, author of the 2015 book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, told CNBC last year that along with taxing the owners of the technology and robots, other sources to fund universal basic income programs could come from taxes on capital wealth, consumption or carbon. The tax revenue, he has said in the past, would give consumers the buying power that would drive the economy.
And what would replace the satisfaction we now get from work?
Ford has also said that self-worth and motivation for self-improvement would come in part from activities incentivized by extra basic income, such as education, volunteering, innovation and work still requiring human attributes.
“At some point we will get to a point where the cost of not doing this is greater than the cost of doing it,” Ford told CNBC. “And at that point maybe it becomes easier.”
Just 25 years ago, few people had heard of the internet, but in the interim it has transformed our lives. While nobody yet knows what the future will bring, we’d better start planning. The robots are ready to report for work.
This article was originally published in Tax Insights on 4 Sep 2017.