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Review: A World Without Work

I’ve come to Daniel Susskind’s A World Without Work (2020) a little late, having only discovered it when my local library had it on display a few weeks ago. Susskind covers a lot of the topics I’ve touched on in this blog, and with much greater detail and rigour, particularly from the economic perspective.

The first two parts of the book set out the history of debate over how technology will affect work (or remove it altogether), and why Susskind thinks that technology will eventually erode the economic demand for humans. He doubts that humans possess any special properties immune to automation—he previously co-authored a whole book The Future of the Professions (2015) arguing that much of what present-day professionals do will eventually be automated—such that technology may eventually eliminate all or nearly all of the work that humans currently get paid for, if somewhat more slowly than what some thinkers have foreseen.

The third part of the book, in which Susskind considers what ought to be done about it, is most relevant to this blog. He firstly notes that the most common prescription from mainstream policy-makers is education, supposed to keep human skills ahead of the machines; but these policy-makers need to pay more attention to how people can learn over the whole their lifetime instead of merely insisting that schools and universities teach the latest skills. Given that machines may eventually take on all work, or at least enough of it to make large numbers of humans “economically useless”, however, he thinks we need a new system for distributing the wealth of society, one not based on paid work. His prescription is a “big state” that closes existing tax loopholes, implements taxes on capital, and distributes the money through a “conditional basic income” similar to the “participation income” proposed by Anthony Atkinson. Finally, the state needs to concern itself with how citizens might pursue meaningful lives and not just their economic interests (lest state-directed meaning seem sinister, he points out that states already influence our non-economic lives through decisions on whether and where to provide cultural institutions, sporting and recreational facilities, and so on; I would add that insisting the state concern itself only with economic matters is itself a decision about meaning).

I can’t fault Susskind’s analysis; and even if humans can somehow continue to find paid work indefinitely, the question remains if they should want to. Susskind suspects that thinkers insisting that humans find meaning through work are largely well-paid professionals projecting the meaning they find in their work onto masses of not-so-well-paid workers presumed to find meaning in stacking shelves, serving fast food, and so on; he furthermore doubts that demand for arts and craft could ever support an economy of hobbyists doing what they love. What to do about it is of necessity somewhat speculative, since we can’t know for sure how any particular policy might work out without actually implementing it, but, for me, Susskind’s exploration of options beats the de facto do-nothing policy of those who insist that the economy will keep us working forever.

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