In the book Tim argues that while automation is pretty sure to take up to 50% of current jobs, the future is not all doom and gloom. Governments could fairly easily afford to issue a universal basic payment which would free citizens from perennial worries about money. Why the Future is Workless is impressively argued, intelligent and features some brilliant analysis.
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North Melbourne Books talks to Tim Dunlop
North Melbourne Books: Why the Future is Workless marshalls some pretty impressive research arguing that almost half of current jobs will be automated over the next two decades. To the public at large, such looming changes must come as an incomprehensible shock. How long have you been following this story for?
Tim Dunlop: It is a longstanding interest, but I really started to pay attention about three years ago. My previous book, The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience (Scribe), was about the invention of new media, and the media is an area that has been drastically affected by changes in technology, so I guess that sort of primed my interest. I realised that so many industries were likely to be affected, not just by robots, but by other sorts of technology, and I thought, whoa, this is something we really need to start thinking about.
NMB: Many writers on this subject paint a gloomy, almost dystopian picture of the future. Your book is quite cheerful and positive. You argue government could afford to provide a universal basic wage, ensuring financial security and more time for the pursuit of happiness. How did you become so optimistic on the subject?
TD: I wouldn't say the book is cheerful, but I did try to keep it positive. If technology is really going to upend the job market, then I figure it's best to try and make that work rather than just throw up our hands in despair. I guess I'm just a glass-half-full person in general, but I also think the experience in media shaped my approach. Technological changes to media -- the digitisation of news, the death of newspapers, the rise of online and mobile -- has been hugely disruptive for a lot of people, but it has also provided opportunities for others and, I think, improved the availability of news and information for ordinary people in lots of ways. So I guess having watched that process closely I was aware that there was an upside in amongst all the painful changes.
NMB: The idea of a universal basic wage runs counter to all our notions of how remuneration works, yet Workless shows it would be affordable and even save on administrative costs. Studies where such a basic wage has been implemented also show that recipients don’t waste the money, but use it for better health outcomes and starting up small businesses. Were you surprised by these findings, seeing they’re so culturally counter intuitive?
TD: There is this sort of tabloid view -- reinforced by governments -- that people are at heart lazy and that if you just give them something like the dole, they will turn into bludgers if you don't also force them into doing stuff in return for the payment. I've never believed that. I think most people want to do something useful with their time and that if you give them the opportunity they will take it. So I wasn't surprised, but it is nice to know that there is now a considerable body of research that suggests that making people financially secure with something like a Basic Income actually helps the economy. This is why the heart of the book is really about trying to get people -- particularly people in power -- to rethink the whole idea of what work is so that we can all respond more sensibly to changes caused by technology. If there really is a lot of technological unemployment on the horizon, we can't afford to maintain our current views of what work is and who deserves to be paid.
NMB: In a lot of ways Why the Future is Workless reads like a political manifesto for a brighter future. Do you think your book has political goals?
TD: Optimism is always political! So, yes, the book really does want to influence political decision makers to throw out everything they think they know about employment and rethink it from the ground up.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
TD: I just devoured the four books in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series and loved every word of it. The protagonist, Lila, is one of the great characters of literature of any age. I'm now reading Clade by James Bradley and loving that. Other than that, I spend an inordinate amount time reading reports about the future of work!
Why the Future is Workless, by Tim Dunlop. Published by New South Books. RRP: $29.99