One of the most popular arguments for a Basic Income comes from the changing nature of work in modern society. Technological advancement has always been a part of life, with each incremental step changing the way that people work and resulting in increased productivity and for some, an increase in prosperity. Each technological shift, such as the discovery of electricity, has meant people moving into new industries and new types of work. The difference between the types of technological change that have come before and the current movement towards automation is that it is bringing with it a net loss of jobs. A factory that replaces assembly line workers with robots does not increase its workforce and employ more people. As this happens en masse we will see unemployment increasing, and therefore not only poverty, deprivation and poor health, but also a reduction in the number of people able to purchase the products created by machines.
It will not be only unskilled labour which will be automated away. Increasingly powerful computation and the advent of artificial intelligence will have a massive impact on today’s office workers. Outsourcing to Asia is already underway for many jobs which can be done remotely because of the cost savings on offer, and there is every reason to suspect that once software is able to replace a human employee that employers will reduce their workforce.
This is not to say that automation is unconditionally bad for society or undesirable. Indeed there is a strong argument that if a job can be performed without a human operator then it should be, especially if that work is unsatisfying or poorly paid. Automation can be liberating and help us move towards a post-work society, or a post-menial-work society, and it should be a pleasant experience, freeing up individuals to pursue fulfilling activities, paid or unpaid, and enjoying a higher quality of life as a result. But this only works if those individuals made redundant by automation have enough money to live on to prevent poverty and support an acceptable quality of life. A basic income represents the best way forward to ensure this is the case.