Delivering social benefits if society needs fewer workers

On October 26, the Center for Technology Innovation hosted a panel discussion about the future of social benefits if automation technologies dramatically reduce the demand for human labor. Panelists included CTI’s Darrell West, who authored a new paper on the subject, Nick Hanauer of Second Avenue Partners, and Scott Santens of Basic Income Action.

Automation technologies from artificial intelligence to machine-to-machine communications can already accomplish certain tasks better than humans. The panel returned several times to the example of autonomous vehicles and how they would impact the millions of professional drivers in the United States, but the question also applies to many other job categories. As automation technologies become less expensive and more capable, they will find more applications in the economy.


Experts disagree on how these technologies will impact the workforce. Some warn of staggering unemployment, while others predict the creation of new job categories that will employ displaced workers. A third group argues that automation will have little effect on employment in the future. Any policy measures that address the future of employment must account for the uncertainty of outcomes on employment.

The panel also highlighted civic innovation, the idea that all levels of government should create new policies at a pace that reflects technological change. Because future employment outcomes are difficult to predict accurately, one solution would be to improve our ability to react to changes as they occur.

The discussion covered a number of policies for distributing benefits outside of traditional employment, including a basic guaranteed income and flexible benefits. A basic guaranteed income sets a floor below which an individual’s income cannot fall, providing enough money to live comfortably in the case of persistent unemployment. Likewise, flexible benefits for healthcare, pensions, and education would not be tied to employment. These policies attempt to reduce the uncertainty associated with the rise of automation technologies.

Lifelong education is another potential solution for adapting workers to new technologies. If the rate of automation is accelerating, it is likely that workers will need to draw on several different sets skill over the course of their careers. In this case, some means of providing and financing education for workers in the middle of their careers will be necessary. 

Perhaps the most provocative question raised by the discussion is how people will choose to spend their time outside of traditional jobs. Lower demand for human labor may lead to more time for leisure, creative pursuits, or volunteering.   

Overall, the panel emphasized flexibility in the face of increased automation. Policies that offer more choices will benefit workers whether or not technology drastically reduces the number of available jobs.

Watch the full video of the event here, and contribute to the discussion by leaving a comment below.