Elon’s Work Revolution

Last week I got to hang out with some of the world’s most interesting thinkers and leaders at the World Government Summit in Dubai.  This was a global gathering of great brains and it was a chance for everybody to discuss some of the big issues of the day.  This was the sort of forum to give Davos a run for its money.

One of the visionaries of our time in my view is Elon Musk.  Not just because of his commercial success with cars, energy storage, and missions to Mars.  But because he’s both a thinker and a do-er.  He has a brain the size of a planet but isn’t afraid to put his money where his mouth is.

According to Elon, big changes are coming in the economy, and so, many people will be unemployed in the future. So government is going to need to rescue them by providing for everyone with a basic minimum wage.

I don’t think we’re going to have a choice,” he said. “I think it’s going to be necessary. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better…. I think a universal basic income will be necessary, but the much harder challenge is: How will people then have meaning?”

That is the question. If in a world where leisure is no longer an option – you are forced to do it whether you like it or not – what should one do and who should pay for it?

It may be the world is not yet ready for this utopian view. In Switzerland last year a referendum was held on a proposal to give every citizen a certain amount of money every month, whether they worked or not. The result of the referendum showed that more than 75 per cent of voters opposed the plan, with fewer than 25 supporting it. The proposal had called for adults to be paid an unconditional monthly income of about 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,755), whether they worked or not. Children would be paid SFr625. The supporters argued that since work was increasingly automated, fewer jobs were available for workers. Who wouldn’t vote for such a proposal? I suspect the children weren’t allowed to vote, hard to imagine that a ten-year-old would turn down Sfr625 a month in pocket money. Just imagine how many boxes of Ricola’s that would buy. *they’re herbal sweets by the way

David Niven, the English actor who wowed Hollywood with his blue eyes and pencil moustache, defined work as “what a body is obliged to do; everything else is fun”. He said that he made two films a year to pay the butcher, baker and the school fees, and spent the rest of the time trying to write books, eventually with some success, even if every story seemed to include a cad who lived in the South of France or Hollywood who got lots of girls.

Elon’s new version of work seems to be similar, although it is hard to imagine a robotic David Niven. But his vision of a new age dawning of abundance and low prices thanks to automation, and a universal basic income, like the one rejected by Swiss workers, for those people robbed of their jobs, sounds enticing.

A universal basic income, after all, is a radically simpler alternative to benefits and high minimum wages, solving, in theory, the problems of poverty and technologically induced mass unemployment.

But I fear a world without work will mean a loss of creativity for many people. Like many entrepreneurs, my life is based around my work.  Work is good for the soul and for many of us it defines us and gives us dignity and purpose.  Even outside work our work identity is important to how we see ourselves.

Added to which, will there be just one universal basic income – or will rich countries like Germany be able to afford to pay more than say Rwanda? In which case people will continue to want to migrate to those countries that pay a higher basic income.

What do you think? Will life be more fun – or less rewarding?

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