What if people run out of things to do? Automation, Basic Income and the “Purpose” problem

Beijing, China. 2015.

Imagine this. Your basic expenses are covered. You don’t need to work anymore. You have Monday to Friday free. Nowhere you need to be. Nothing you need to do. You can live (reasonably) comfortably. You have all the time in the world.

Now what?

With the rise of automation and technological advances, some researchers predict that within the next couple of decades, up to 47% of American jobs could be vulnerable to automation. In developing nations such as Ethiopia, Nepal, and China, the impact could be even higher.  With a large percentage of the population out of a job, governments around the world (Finland, Alaska, Uganda, Canada, Switzerland) have begun to explore an ambitious and controversial social policy:  Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Graphics and text from Futurism.com.

Before reading on, check out this awesome animated video on the motivations, benefits and complexities of UBI, particularly with regards to welfare, tax and pension systems. I won’t cover that here. What I would like to explore are the potential social impacts of UBI – i.e., what Bill Gates has termed the ‘purpose’ problem. He writes:

In my view, the robots-take-over scenario is not the most interesting one to think about. It is true that as artificial intelligence gets more powerful, we need to ensure that it serves humanity and not the other way around. […] But I am more interested in what you might call the purpose problem. […] War and violence are at historical lows and still declining. Advances in science and technology will help people live much longer and go a long way toward ending disease and hunger. What if we solved big problems like hunger and disease, and the world kept getting more peaceful: What purpose would humans have then? What challenges would we be inspired to solve? […] What if people run out of things to do? 

It’s important to note that one of the arguments for UBI is to “free up individuals from the burden and stress of financial instability”, potentially “leading to a spark in creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation”. (Even with automation changing the workplace landscape, such creative skills will still be in high demand).

So let’s talk about creativity and innovation. It occurs to me, that while UBI satisfies our low-level ‘physiological’ needs (food, water, warmth, shelter), and maybe our ‘safety’ needs (security), it does nothing to address our higher level needs of ‘Belonging’, ‘Esteem’, and ‘Self-actualization’.  (See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs below). Yet, Maslow’s pyramid implies that humans are driven to satisfy lower-level needs before satisfying higher-level ones.  Whether or not you agree with this pyramid (and many don’t), let’s pretend for now that it’s true. And let’s evaluate what the current workplace offers us – and if taken away, what universal human needs could be left un-fulfilled.

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” from SimplePsychology.com
  1. An income ==> [Security]
  2. A place to go and a time to be at every day.  ==> [Esteem and Belonging]
  3. Coworkers and colleagues for social interaction.  ==> [Belonging]
  4. If you’re lucky and love your job, intellectual challenges and a sense of accomplishment. ==> ]Esteem]
  5. If you’re really lucky, fulfillment of your highest potential, ability to make a positive impact to the world, and finding a sense of purpose and meaning. ==> [Self-actualization]

Most people will get benefits #1, #2 and #3 from their work. Some might get #4, at least for some portion of time. Yet, given that only 13% of workers worldwide feel engaged by their jobs, its unlikely you get benefit #5 from your current work. (Sad, but true).

When UBI comes into the picture, it will give people benefit #1 [Security].  But with automation and a lack of jobs, people will lose benefits #2 and #3 [Belonging and Esteem]. This means (unless there are specific measures to account for that – e.g. public spaces/clubs/venues where people could go to meet people, to connect, to ‘belong’ somewhere, to achieve common goals), lower-level needs are left unsatisfied, potentially making it harder to achieve the higher-level need for self-actualization. (For example, have you ever tried to drive a creative project by yourself? At home? In isolation? Without the support, feedback and social interaction of like-minded people in a place of belonging like ‘work’? I’m trying it now. Let me tell you – it’s friggin’ hard). Consequently, the intended benefit of “creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation” as an automatically assumed outcome of UBI  is …. well, somewhat questionable.

Another thing – sure, aiming for creativity is great and all, but our education and schools are not currently set up to nurture creative thinking. Most people have self-narratives around creativity (e.g. “I can’t draw. I don’t make art. I am not a creative person”), often as left-over residue from unfortunate teacher criticisms in primary  school. These narratives are not only self-debilitating but also dangerous to our health and well-being [Brene Brown].  Additionally, in the Western world, we tend to give up easily in the face of obstacles and failure, for fear of not looking “smart” enough. But fear and failure are a huge part of being creative. You can’t innovate without it! While researchers such as Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck, Adam Grant, Kelly McGonigal and Brene Brown have made significant (and very inspiring) strides towards addressing this issue –  our current systems are not set up (yet!) to breed the general public in pursuing creativity, encouraging initiative, and driving innovation.

So perhaps that should be one of the new goals governments should aim for:  Alongside with UBI, setting up societal support and systems that nurture and nourish creative thinking, and reward initiative and entrepreneurial spirit.

Well, that’s my ramble for today. Then again, I could be completely wrong. Either way, this was fun to write!

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