“We are experiencing the greatest technological and economic shift in human history, and it’s time we addressed these problems head on.”
— Andrew Yang, Democratic Candidate for President.
As an entrepreneur, Democratic candidate for President Andrew Yang, used to believe in the power of businesses to create new jobs to counter automation. Companies like Lambda School or Praxis are working hard to reskill the economy. Yang no longer thinks that sort of thing will be sufficient.
Now he supports a Universal Basic Income (UBI) of $1,000 a month regardless of circumstance, guaranteed for every American over 18.
Whether or not UBI will work, there is a major cultural issue in the way of adoption: The Protestant Work Ethic.
When puritans from northern Europe came to America, they brought with them a theology that glamorized toil as virtuous. Historian and sociologist Max Weber coined the term “Protestant Work Ethic” in his early 20th century work “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Other historians (such as Fernand Braudel) dispute that the “Protestant Work Ethic” was in fact responsible for the success of capitalist societies.
Nevertheless, as a myth it remains central to America’s beliefs about itself, that hard work and determination will not only get you want you want, but that anyone uninterested in those things is a scrounger and a cheat.
In the 18th century books of improving poetry extolled these virtues, such a Isaac Watts’ Divine Songs In Easy Language Attempted for the Use of Children (1715). They were widely distributed and praised. Poems such as “How Doth the LIttle Busy Bee” exhort children to effort, saying
“In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.”
In the modern era, business pundits glamorizing “hustle,” eating at your desk, and 18 hour days reinforce the same attitudes. This paradigm may soon find itself at odds with a world that simply doesn’t need humans to work that hard.
Reconceptualizing how we relate to work, and how work relates to our own value, may be necessary if the machines really do start replacing whole swathes of the working population.