The Future of Work

In the May issue of Analog magazine, editor Stanley Schmidt discussed population growth and migration. He made one point that struck this long time SF reader as rather familiar.

 He wrote:-

It seldom occurs to us that we could … decide that there’s not enough necessary work to go around, so we should redistribute what there is so that everybody has a job but nobody has to work as much.

This reminded me of the predictions made half a century ago that in the twentyfirst century we would be working four hour days, which raise a hollow laugh from many suffering from today’s presenteeist work culture.

There is nothing fundementally wrong with the notion that the length of the working week should fall. In “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, set in the first decade of the twentieth century, Robert Tressell shows that a 66 hour plus working week was the norm for labourers and skilled workers. When my father began his apprenticeship during World War II, a ten hour day and five and a half days a week was common. I work 35 hours a week. Why should this trend not continue?

If you’re on the minimum wage, there’s an obvious answer – you would not earn anywhere near enough to live on, and even relatively highly paid professional jobs would not produce a living wage on reduced hours. There is no reason why this should be the case, particularly in the wealthy nations of Western Europe and North America.

The problem is, that wealth, particularly in the UK and USA, is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. If we are to work fewer hours, then some of that wealth will have to be redistributed.

We could start by plugging all the tax loop-holes that the wealthy use to avoid paying tax. Then new tax bands could be created for those on high incomes. And corporation tax could be increased. Rich individuals and corporations have been paying smaller and smaller proportions of their incomes in tax for over a quarter of a century. Middle and low earners have had to make up the difference. If you’ve ever been wondering why your tax burden is increasing while public services get worse, there’s your answer.

This extra revenue could be used to improve the incomes of low-paid workers in both the public and private sectors by means of reverse income tax – if your pay drops below a certain threshold the Inland Revenue starts paying you money instead of taking it. Probably a lot simpler than all the form filling that goes with claiming benefits too.

Of course, Marxists will point out that this is still just tinkering with the capitalist system and that revolution is the only solution. The trouble with revolutions is that you go in a great big circle and finish up back where you started.

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2 Responses to “The Future of Work”

  1. theholyllama Says:

    Interesting stuff. The idea of reverse income tax is similar to a certain extent to the Citizens’ Income concept: check out for more details.

  2. Martin Says:

    As you might imagine, there’s an incentive problem here. If you can work harder and make more money but the government will take it, why bother? If you’re being paid to do nothing, why bother working at all? Altruism and habit aren’t strong enough motivations!

    Even those on minimum wage are working half the hours of our great grandfathers, have more holidays and far greater range of material goods, living space, education, opportunities and health.

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