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State handouts for everyone?: 'Computerisation and automation will destroy vast numbers of jobs'

In an uncertain future where robots take over our jobs, states will have to pay citizens a basic income, writes Dr Malcolm Torry.

Dr Malcolm Torry Dr Malcolm Torry is Director of the Citizen's Income Trust and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics.

FIRST OF ALL, what is it? A basic income (sometimes called a citizen’s income) is an unconditional, automatic and non-withdrawable payment to each individual as a right of citizenship.

It would be ‘unconditional’: that is, it would vary with someone’s age, but there would be no other conditions. So everyone of the same age would receive the same basic income, whatever their gender, employment status, family structure, contribution to society, housing costs, or anything else.

It would be ‘automatic’: someone’s basic income would be paid weekly or monthly, automatically. It would be ‘nonwithdrawable’: basic incomes would not be means-tested. If someone’s earnings or wealth increased, then their basic income would not change. It would be ‘individual’: basic incomes would be paid on an individual basis, and not on the basis of a couple or household. Everybody legally resident would receive a basic income, subject to a minimum period of legal residency, and continuing residency for most of the year.

Robots will eventually do all our jobs

shutterstock_347626670 We need a basic income to provide people with an income in a world in which employment no longer does so. Source: Shutterstock/OlegDoroshin

Employment is changing, and has been changing for a long time. My grandfather worked for the same engineering firm from when he left school until he retired. My father had a handful of jobs in the public sector. Our children, who are in their late twenties and early thirties, have already had a variety of kinds of employment: self-employment, agency employment, part-time employment, full-time employment, and sometimes more than one kind at the same time. The real issue is not that the world of paid employment is changing, but that we don’t know how it will change in the future.

I hear confident predictions about precisely how future developments in computerisation and automation will destroy vast numbers of jobs, which is why we need a basic income to provide people with an income in a world in which employment no longer does so. I hear equally confident predictions that nothing much is changing, and nothing will change very much, because every new phase of automation creates jobs as well as destroying them.

In the context of multiple unknowns, about the future direction of globalisation, about future computerisation and automation, and the economic effects of climate change and finite resources, all we can say is that we don’t know the future shape of employment. The problem with most tax and benefits systems is that they make assumptions about what the employment market is like, and about what it is going to be like.

The only benefits system that makes no assumptions at all is basic income: so it is precisely the kind of system that we shall need in an era of deep uncertainty.

Family diversity is the new normal

family Household structure is changing, and will no doubt continue to change. Source: Shutterstock/wong yu liang

Similarly, household structure is changing, and will no doubt continue to change. When I was growing up there was such a thing as a typical family, with a mother and father who stayed married to each other, and had two or three children. It is now much harder to identify a ‘typical family’: yet most benefits systems assume a nuclear family, and claims for means-tested benefits are still usually based on the couple or household rather than on the individual.

Diverse and flexible family structures are not easy for today’s benefits systems to handle. Again the problem is not so much that we know what family structures will look like for the rest of the twenty-first century, but that we don’t know. The only kind of benefits system that will fit with any kind of family structure is the radically simple kind: a basic income, paid to each individual.

Money for nothing?

I have chosen just two issues facing us in the twenty-first century. There are of course many more, for example, how to maintain employment incentives when wages have to be topped up to provide a decent standard of living; how to ensure that productivity gains benefit society as a whole rather than just the owners of capital; how to incentivise saving for old age when private and occupational savings will not be sufficient to provide everyone with a decent old age.

It is not that we know how the twenty-first century will evolve: it’s that we don’t know. The issue facing us in the twenty-first century is uncertainty. The only benefits system that will cope with that is one based on a basic income.

Dr Malcolm Torry is Director of the Citizen’s Income Trust and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics. He will give a keynote address at Social Justice Ireland’s Annual Policy Conference ‘Basic Income – Radical Utopia or Practical Solution’ on Tuesday 22nd November in Croke Park.  

Poll: Would you support an unconditional basic income for everyone in Ireland?>

750,000 people are living in poverty in Ireland – on under €218 a week>

 

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About the author:

Dr Malcolm Torry  / Dr Malcolm Torry is Director of the Citizen's Income Trust and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics.

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