The paradox of abundance: the future of work in the face of automation and degrowth

In the coming years, the climate crisis will present a myriad of problems and challenges for our societies to overcome. As humanity is forced to abandon perpetual economic growth, we will have to find new policies to ensure the fair and equitable distribution of resources among all people.

In recent years, the threat that automation poses to workers has risen to prominence within Western political discourse. This is nothing new. From the Luddites rebelling against the mechanisation of the textile industry to fears that the US’s ‘Green Revolution’ in agriculture would leave farm labourers destitute, technological change in our economic processes has always been met with fears of job losses. This presents a specific challenge to efforts to roll-out measures such as a ‘Green New Deal’, aimed at limiting further growth in order to mitigate the climate emergency.

Writing in the depths of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes described the phenomenon of technological unemployment, whereby the discovery of new forms of technology mean the rate at which labour is economised is outpaced by the rate at which we can find new uses for labour. 

Keynes did not think this was a bad thing. Rather, he pointed to the general improvement in the standard of living over the preceding centuries, and suggested that the initial instability caused by this technological development would in time give way to the further improvement of economic conditions.

Keynes’ argument is essentially that this technological development has led to a vast increase in total output, meaning that although we face instability in labour markets in the short run, we can expect quality of life to increase in the long term.

More recently, this diagnosis has come under scrutiny, most notably from David H. Autor. Autor points to the contrast over the past several decades of increasing output and stagnating wages as an indicator that society is suffering not from a lack of resources, but from a misallocation of them. He describes this as the paradox of abundance: that the issue threatening the livelihoods of workers is not scarcity but abundance. By this, Autor warns that the decreasing role of labour and increasing role of capital means that those who own capital are set to win out over those who own labour (workers).

Historically, this trend has been offset by consistent economic growth. The Luddites gave way to the textile workers of British cities who saw a sizable improvement in their quality of life in the following centuries, while the US Green Revolution allowed millions of workers to be reemployed in the steel mills and factories, paving the way for what W.W. Rostow called the ‘Age of High-Mass Consumption’.

In previous centuries, the steady march of economic growth has meant that increases in economic inequality have not prevented improvements in the standard of living among workers. However, the 21st Century is not the 20th or the 19th and the onset of the climate crisis now means that that growth can no longer be presumed. Within public discourse, writers like George Monbiot have warned that we will not be able to address our dependency on fossil fuels until we also address the presumption of economic growth. Meanwhile some economists have written that in the face of the need to decarbonise our energy systems, economic growth is now either undesirable (Daly) or impossible (Ayres and Warr).

This would mean that unlike in previous centuries, the issue of technological unemployment could not be overcome by economic growth. As Autor predicts, this would mean that we will see increasing returns to the owners of capital, rather than to workers (the owners of labour). This would be because, as the amount of wealth created remains the same, the share of that wealth going to labour (workers) rather than capital (business owners etc.) would decrease.

This presents a problem as we try to face the challenge of the climate breakdown. Without some reallocation of resources, the end of economic growth would represent a drastic increase in economic inequality. This is certainly possible. Autor writes that the paradox of abundance is ‘…not one of impoverishment but one of maldistribution.’ He suggests that our problem in the future will be finding a way to distribute our abundant societal riches when people are no longer readily able to trade their labour for a salary.

Keynes’ solution to this issue, which he saw as a definite positive, was to have people work far fewer hours than we do now. At the time of writing, Keynes was imagining a far off future when virtually no work required human input and as such, all human labour required for economic processes could be fulfilled by a fifteen hour week. Our current state of technological development is not yet so advanced as to allow us to achieve similar levels of production with a fifteen hour work week, but it could still be possible to reduce our working week. Indeed, leading German Unions have recently announced plans to push for a four day week, in order to combat the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic .

While this may seem like a radical proposal, it does fit quite neatly into the broader historical context.

Since the industrial revolution, the hours worked weekly has fallen dramatically. The average Belgian worker in 2000 worked little more than half as many hours as their counterpart in 1870, while in the same time British workers have gained 855.4 hours of extra free time each year, the equivalent of more than five full weeks. Therefore, when compared to the historical record, a reduction in the number of hours we work each week seems like a decidedly less radical solution to the paradox of abundance.

In finding a way to square the seemingly contrasting goals of degrowth and protecting the livelihoods of workers, reducing our weekly working hours could be an answer. More than just allowing us to abandon economic growth, this would give workers a greater amount of leisure time each day and as such could improve the quality of life enjoyed by workers. In the face of the climate emergency, perhaps this would be a better way to improve our standard of living than by pursuing further economic growth.

The featured image (top) is ‘George Monbiot speaks at TEDSummit: A Community Beyond Borders’ from 2019. The image is by TED Conference and is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The in-text diagram shows the ‘Weekly work hours from 1870-2000’ by Max Roser for Our World in Data. The diagram is licensed under the CC-BY license. 

Patrick Geddis 

Patrick Geddis is a Ma student from Northern Ireland studying International Political Economy and a working group member in the Energy and Environment Policy Centre. His main areas of interest are decarbonisation, the effects of climate breakdown on the Global South and the development of green technologies and systems.

Bibliography

David H. Autor, 2015, Paradox of Abundance: Automation Anxiety Returns, in, Subramanian Rangan 2015, Performance and Progress: Essays on Capitalism, Business, and Society, UK: Oxford University Press

Robert U. Ayres and Benjamin Warr 2009, The Economic Growth Engine UK: Edward Elgar Publishing

Herman E. Daly, From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady-State Economy, USA: Edward Elgar

John Maynard Keynes, 1963, Essays in Persuasion, New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

George Monbiot, 2018, While economic growth continues we’ll never kick our fossil fuels habit, UK: Guardian, Accessed 04/09/20, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/26/economic-growth-fossil-fuels-habit-oil-industry

Max Roser, 2013, Working Hours, Our World In Data, Accessed 12/09/20, Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/working-hours#licence 

W.W. Rostow, 1966, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, USA: Cambridge University Press

Derek Scally, 2020, Leading German unions propose four-day working week to save jobs, Germany: Irish Times, Accessed 04/09/20, Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/leading-german-unions-propose-four-day-working-week-to-save-jobs-1.4344040 

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