Undercover Economist

The secret to happiness after the robot takeover

We all seem to be worried about the robots taking over these days — and they don’t need to take all the jobs to be horrendously disruptive. A situation where 30 to 40 per cent of the working age population was economically useless would be tough enough. They might be taxi drivers replaced by a self-driving car, hedge fund managers replaced by an algorithm, or financial journalists replaced by a chatbot on Instagram.

By “economically useless” I mean people unable to secure work at anything approaching a living wage. For all their value as citizens, friends, parents, and their intrinsic worth as human beings, they would simply have no role in the economic system.

I’m not sure how likely this is — I would bet against it happening soon — but it is never too early to prepare for what might be a utopia, or a catastrophe. And an intriguing debate has broken out over how to look after disadvantaged workers both now and in this robot future. Should everyone be given free money? Or should everyone receive the guarantee of a decently-paid job?

Various non-profits, polemicists and even Silicon Valley types have thrown their weight behind the “free money” idea in the form of a universal basic income, while US senators including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand have been pushing for trials of a jobs guarantee.

Basic income or basic jobs? There are countless details for the policy wonks to argue over, but what interests me at the moment is the psychology. In a world of mass technological unemployment, would either of these two remedies make us happy?

Author Rutger Bregman (UK) (US) describes a basic income in glowing terms, as “venture capital for everyone”. He sees the cash as liberation from abusive working conditions, and a potential launch pad to creative and fulfilling projects.

Yet the economist Edward Glaeser views a basic income as a “horror” for the recipients. “You’re telling them their lives are not going to be ones of contribution,” he remarked in a recent interview with the EconTalk podcast. “Their lives aren’t going to be producing a product that anyone values.”

Surely both of them have a point. A similar disagreement exists regarding the psychological effect of a basic jobs guarantee, with advocates emphasising the dignity of work, while sceptics fear a Sisyphean exercise in punching the clock to do a fake job.

So what does the evidence suggest? Neither a jobs guarantee nor a basic income has been tried at scale in a modern economy, so we are forced to make educated guesses. We know that joblessness makes us miserable.

In the words of Warwick university economist Andrew Oswald: “There is overwhelming statistical evidence that involuntary unemployment produces extreme unhappiness.” What’s more, adds Prof Oswald, most of this unhappiness seems to be because of a loss of prestige, identity or self-worth. Money is only a small part of it. This suggests that the advocates of a jobs guarantee may be on to something.

In this context, it’s worth noting two recent studies of lottery winners in the Netherlands and Sweden, both of which find that big winners tend to scale back their hours rather than quitting their jobs. We seem to find something in our jobs worth holding on to.

Yet many of the trappings of work frustrate us. Researchers led by Daniel Kahneman and Alan Krueger asked people to reflect on the emotions they felt as they recalled episodes in the previous day. The most negative episodes were the evening commute, the morning commute, and work itself.

Things were better if people got to chat to colleagues while working, but (unsurprisingly) they were worse for low status jobs, or jobs for which people felt overqualified. None of which suggests that people will enjoy working on a guaranteed-job scheme.

Psychologists have found that we like and benefit from feeling in control. That is a mark in favour of a universal basic income: being unconditional, it is likely to enhance our feelings of control. The money would be ours, by right, to do with as we wish. A job guarantee might work the other way: it makes money conditional on punching the clock.

On the other hand (again!), we like to keep busy. Harvard researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert (UK) (US) have found that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”. And social contact is generally good for our wellbeing. Maybe guaranteed jobs would help keep us active and socially connected.

The truth is, we don’t really know. I would hesitate to pronounce with confidence about which policy might ultimately be better for our wellbeing. It is good to see that the more thoughtful advocates of either policy — or both policies simultaneously — are asking for large-scale trials to learn more.

Meanwhile, I am confident that we would all benefit from an economy that creates real jobs which are sociable, engaging, and decently paid. Grand reforms of the welfare system notwithstanding, none of us should be giving up on making work work better.

 

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 29 June 2018.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now (or very very soon) in paperback – feel free to pre-order online or through your local bookshop.

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