Losing your job to a robot might not necessarily be all doom and gloom if governments revolutionise the way we can earn a crust.
That’s the hope of social policy academic Professor Greg Marston, who wants Australia to join other nations in debating the merits of introducing a universal basic income to help with an expected surge in unemployment that the rise of robots may bring.
The University of Queensland academic and other proponents of the UBI, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla’s Elon Musk, argue governments need policies that provide an economic floor for people who lose their jobs or are forced to work fewer hours as a result of greater automation.
Governments would pay all adults a basic salary of about $20,000 to cover their basic bills, but there would be no requirement to work.
Opponents argue the UBI would remove the incentive to work and spark income tax rate hikes.
Prof Marston admits a UBI isn’t a perfect solution but notes that trials in Canada and Finland show most people still want to work.
“It’s not a luxury income. People will still want to work,” he told AAP ahead of a lecture on Monday to the University of NSW’s social policy conference.
“But I don’t think we are going to restore paid work to the extent to which it provided the livelihoods, security and meaning.
“So we are going to have to come up with other ways to do those things because the labour market doesn’t do as good a job as it used to.”
The Committee for Economic Development of Australia last year forecast that almost 40 per cent of jobs have a moderate to high chance of disappearing within 15 years.
Prof Marston said UBIs would allow governments to scrap many welfare payments and potentially open up opportunities for people to take advantage of the benefits of increased productivity that robots bring.
He envisages a world where work is no longer at the centre of our lives, with more time to pursue study, hobbies, start new businesses, learn new skills, and engage more in town hall-style politics.
But he acknowledges a UBI would be expensive, costing up to $340 billion a year – about double the $192 billion the government expects to spend on social security and welfare in 2016/17.
Prof Marston suggests Australia could start small by trialling a UBI among young people so teething issues could be identified before a rollout to all adults.
“The labour market is going to change anyway so we need to find forms of payment that are going to recognise that and allow people to engage in more forms of work as automation increases,” he said.
“Lots of the routine stuff probably shouldn’t be done by us anyway, so there’s a kind of liberating component to automation, but the key is that society has to manage it well.”