Article originally published on LinkedIn, 23 May 2019
Martin Ford, the author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2016) and Architects of Intelligence (2019), gave a TED talk in April 2017 entitled “How we’ll earn money in a future without jobs.” Just before he gets to his main topic of universal basic income (UBI),¹ there is a phrase that caught my ear, which I would like to focus on here, and relate to what I see as a larger process of rethinking work, jobs,²income, wealth, and their interrelationships in the wake of automation:
we’re ultimately going to have to find a way to decouple incomes from traditional work
A principal reason for this “decoupling,”³ as Mr. Ford relates, is that production of what we need to live is increasingly being done by machines. There is an ongoing debate regarding what might ultimately be the net loss of jobs – and of what kinds of jobs – to intelligent automation.⁴ But for purposes of this short essay, I’ll accept that automation will be taking over progressively more of the “making” in “making a living.”
Jobs as the link between (some) work and (some) income
The point where income meets work (and really vice-versa) is for most of us jobs or employment (or a salable product of work). I understand Mr. Ford’s reference to “traditional work” in this sense – i.e., paid work, or work that earns money. To my ear, however, “traditional work” sounds like it would also include a range of unremunerated activities to maintain the home, raise a family, and contribute in various ways to the community. In other words, there are forms of “traditional work,” some of them vitally important, that have never been coupled with income to begin with.⁵
And on the flip side there are long-established forms of income that are not directly related – or related at all – to any kind of work. These range from inheritance, rent, investment, chance, arguably in some cases bonuses, and in lesser amounts from public assistance and perhaps UBI. To this list must be added ill-gotten gains, especially the sometimes staggering sums involved in corruption.
Work that is not paid, and income that is not worked for have long existed, but on the margins of economic consideration. What is new is that an increasing amount of work can be done without paying people to do it, i.e., through intelligent automation. And part of what I am proposing is that this reality requires us to look anew at how work is and is not coupled via employment with income.
Decoupling of work, jobs, and income
And as we do that, we find (even before Martin Ford or anyone raised the issue) that there is “decoupling” not just of work and income, but among three concepts we are used to thinking of as tightly bound together – work, jobs, and income (the first two often treated as synonyms, with the whole object being the third):
- work and jobs are not the same thing, and quite a bit of important and meaningful work is not remunerated (so it is often omitted from discussions of “work”);
- many jobs (productive work that is paid, as well as “BS jobs”) may be taken over by automation, removing for many the actual or potential link between work and income; and
- jobs in general are not the only source of income (and, it should be noted, not the source of the highest incomes).
When you add to these disconnects the fact that wealth – popularly thought of as being primarily a function of income from paid work – accrues to a significant extent based on a separate set of factors (related to those same ones mentioned above that provide income not directly related to work), this calls into question how we think about and organize our socio-economy. That question is only amplified by the astounding concentration of the world’s wealth in very few hands – the active factor in the equation of rising inequality.
“Decoupling” or “rearranging”?
By highlighting disconnects among work, jobs, income, and wealth, I’m not suggesting that they are not or should not be related in some ways. Rather the point is that we are in a period of change where long-time assumptions about those relationships, to the extent they ever held in the way we imagined them, can no longer hold. Arguably we already had at least partial “decouplings” among them. But now, with the advent of intelligent automation, we are looking at a potentially unprecedented “rearranging” of economic relationships. And recognition of this is necessary for any meaningful discussion of the “future of work” (and of jobs, income, and wealth).
The proposal for UBI – Martin Ford’s main point as mentioned above – is but one direction in which this potentially wide discussion can go.
- This is clearly a topic that still interests Ford. See his 2 Feb. 2019 LinkedIn article, “Why a Universal Basic Income is the Answer to Job Automation.”
- A note on terminology in the interest of clarity. Work, jobs, and employment all have more than one meaning. I tend to use “work” to refer to productive or service activity, regardless of pay or not, or of the organizational context, or not. There is a much larger discussion possible on the term (in English, and indeed across languages). “Job” and “employment” I use more or less as synonyms, meaning paid work.
- The phrase crops up elsewhere as well. For example in Eddie Braverman’s 12 Aug. 2016 Wall Street Oasis blog post: “How Do We Decouple Income From Work?” The concept of “decoupling” may have been boosted into the public discourse by Erik Brynjolfsson’s and Andrew McAfee’s discussion of how dramatic productivity improvements are now happening without a concomitant rise in wages (see for example interviews on the “Great Decoupling” in McKinsey Quarterly 2014 and HBR 2015).
- For anyone needing an overview of the case for automation eliminating jobs, CPG Grey’s video “Humans Need Not Apply” is a good start.
- In a LinkedIn post last year (8 May 2018), I spotlighted Rebecca F. Taylor’s interesting 2004 article on how we treat unremunerated work: “Extending conceptual boundaries: Work, voluntary work, and employment.” There is a wider literature on this topic.