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Automated workers and unemployment
The future of work, man vs machine? Image credits BBC/Johnny Void

With trials for self-driving commercial lorries to take place in the UK within the next twelve months, the work days of thousands of Britain’s long-haul drivers may soon be numbered.

Of course, these are only preliminary tests – it may well be a decade or more before driverless deliveries and long-distance haulage are an everyday reality. However, with the beginnings already upon us, a boom in automated jobs is surely coming sooner rather than later.

Driverless haulage lorries are just the latest in a range of technological upgrades to manual jobs. From driverless taxis, and Amazon’s long-awaited drone deliveries, to supermarket checkouts, call centres, and even roles in fast food restaurants, huge sectors of employment are already being replaced by automated workers. This automation revolution has some estimating that within just three decades, almost half of all existing jobs could be done by machine. The potential for machines to lighten the load throughout society is, in theory, cause for celebration. With many automated programs able to undertake tedious and highly repetitive tasks, whole sectors of the current workforce could soon be free to invest their time elsewhere – if they are allowed.

Workers of the future

Fears over the rise of automated jobs taps into a real human dilemma about work, the economy, and the future of society. Under the current government, we have seen the state pension age rise (and set to continue rising), meaning people are required to work for longer in order to support themselves. At the same time job prospects in many manual sectors shrink, and budgets for apprenticeships and retraining are slashed. The need for people to work to subsist, and the growing ability to replace human workers with automated labour is a direct conflict of interest. The technological revolution facing Britain’s workforce will hit the most vulnerable workers the hardest – especially those in low skilled and low paid jobs. It is manual jobs, rather than high skilled trades and the professions, experts forecast, that will be the most likely to disappear.

This process has already begun. You only need to walk down any of Britain’s once-bustling high streets to see examples. Online banking has seen local branches once manned by employees close, supermarkets have replaced many friendly cashiers with rows of self-service machines – a trend which looks only set to increase in the coming years.

Few of us would dispute that technological advancement is a good thing. Eschewing technology in the hope of preserving poorly paid manual positions is not a priority for businesses. Nor is it a long-term solution for workers in a modernising world. Instead, what we need is a real alternative. Something which gives individuals security, and takes the stigma out of unemployment. The future is coming – and both society and the economy must be ready to face it.

The Universal Wage

The UK is not alone in facing the huge changes automated work brings to a society and its economy. Throughout Europe, states are speculating what the future might look like as societies harness the full potential of new technology.

The idea of Universal Basic Income is one of the more popular solutions to any impending automation revolution. The Universal Basic Income would support those out of work with a flat rate income, providing security as workers trained for new roles or looked for other employment. Trials for the basic income have already taken place with notable success in Finland. Those participating reported lower levels of stress, more time to think and create, and more enthusiasm in searching for work

More trials are currently planned in other countries. At the beginning of this year, it was reported that trials of the Universal Basic Income are being considered by two councils in Scotland.

The spanner in the works

With evidence of successful pilot schemes in a number of countries, and a popular appetite for the development of a caring, responsive, and responsible welfare state in Britain, why isn’t the potential for a Universal Basic Income being given more attention at Westminster? The simple answer is this: we have a Conservative government which runs our economy based the ideology of the past, rather than the economics of the future.

The Tories have rejected the idea of a Universal Basic Income on the grounds that it will discourage work, and give people too much for too little at the expense of raising taxes for the most wealthy. Conservative opposition to the Universal Basic Income is nothing but thinly veiled rhetoric about the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. The idea that those out of work and below the poverty line are somehow at fault has been popular with the party for decades. These sentiments, a key tenet of conservatism for the last two centuries, have no place in a modern world. By clinging on to this attitude, the Conservatives will never be able to help Britain navigate through the challenges that are already beginning to present themselves.

We are set to live in a world in which technological developments are reducing the need for human workers. Refusal to prepare suitably for a future in which many people will no longer be required to work in traditional manual jobs only serves to punish vulnerable workers. Instead, the government should be leading the charge in embracing the benefits of technological innovation and scientific endeavour.

A right and a necessity

Labour and the Green Party remain the only two British parties currently open to the idea of a Universal Basic Income. While it did not specifically feature in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, the Party is still in active discussions about the practicality of implementing a Basic Income after the next election. The Universal Basic Income is a welfare state for the modern age, and will be an important issue in future political campaigns. Labour can see this, what is the Tories’ excuse?

With driverless lorries taking to the roads, deliveries by drone, factories operated by machines, and self-service check-outs becoming the new normal, the Universal Basic Income can no longer be dismissed as merely a fantasy of the left.

We are quickly moving into a future where jobs will disappear and the economy will shift. A universal income which delivers security and a basic standard of living is not only the right of every citizen; for many it is about to become a necessity.

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