A common theme surrounding the fourth industrial revolution is the death of consumer demand. Today, we work and earn and spend. Our spending fuels the businesses that we work for, and the public services that we use. But is that about to change?
It was about this time two years ago that the "Cost of Living Crisis" soundbite, from the UK Labour General Election campaign, started to come under scrutiny. The then Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, had correctly spotted a problem: people were earning less than they were spending.
This problem had been rumbling on for some time, of course, but in the run up to the General Election the issue became highly discussed. The error, however, was that it was being examined within the context of a twelve month period - would there still be a Cost of Living Crisis on polling day in May 2015?
On the issue of a Cost of Living Crisis, much like the issue of the future of work and the impact on our economy, a longer term view is essential.
As I campaigned in the General Election, I met lots of families who were struggling to keep up. It was heartbreaking. How is it fair that Mum and Dad are both in work, yet unable to afford food and fuel at the same time? Why should the young mum be victimised as a layabout when the only work she can get doesn't even cover the cost of childcare and the bus ride to work? For many families - especially those who had purchased their council houses on the cheap and borrowed against their out of control value - family debt was beginning to take a toll too. Increasing percentages of income was and is being spent on servicing debt for fear of losing the family home. Mum and Dad would be working to keep the ship afloat whilst the two point four kids left school with little hope of finding a job and affording a home of their own.
The increased presence of technology in the workplace had already started to have an impact, especially on those entry level jobs that school leavers might traditionally take. The local supermarket with its self-checkout tills, the closure of the local bank because everyone is online, the loss of jobs at the major retailer because of the automated warehouse.
Traditionally, technological advancement would lead to new job creation and the transition of workers from the jobs of today to the jobs of tomorrow. I'm not convinced, however, that this will continue to be the case. And I'm convinced that it'll be an issue not just for young people entering the workforce for the first time, but for those already within it too.
The doom-mongers predict the collapse of work as we know it, and with it the ability for consumers to spend. Our modern economy would need to be re-wired. But I, for one, am unwilling to agree that it has to be that way.
That's why the British Government needs an active industrial policy. An approach that invests in the creation of new jobs, whilst investing in the training and skills required of the workers of today and of tomorrow. But investment in new business and education is nothing new. Will it be enough or do we need to be more radical in our approach?
A few weeks ago, I was interested to read about the vote in Switzerland for the introduction of a Universal Basic Income (or "UBI"); a flat, un-meanstested payment to each individual from the state.
My initial reaction was to write it off, we'd never be able to afford it and it denigrates the "contract" of social security: that you get support because you've paid in. It also worried me that it might be a proposal that moves consumer spending from what we earn, to what we borrow to what we now receive from the State. A state subsided consumer demand led economy would not be the answer.
Proponents of UBI argue that it provides an economic safety net for everyone, allowing individuals to work how and when they want to. A modern reform of the ageing welfare state. A proposal fit for the future of work.
The Swiss proposal was, however, pretty generous. At a suggested SFn30,000 per year - costing the state an estimated SFn208bn - it was no surprise that the bill didn't pass.
However, much like the Cost of Living Crisis, I think we need to consider these issues with a longer time frame in mind. We ought to start thinking now about what our sensible and costed response would be to increasing mass unemployment (or underemployment) in the next two decades, or how we reform the tax system and minimum wage legislation or pension reforms to meet the increasing numbers of people working "freelance" at home for many different businesses.
Perhaps UBI is part of the solution. I'm not yet convinced, although it's been recommended that I read the recent report on the issue by the RSA (which you can read here).
What is clear is that a free market neo-liberal approach is most likely not the answer. In the weeks following the collapse of British Home Stores - a business that failed to keep up with the market - and the loss of 11,000 jobs, it seems to me that we need a different answer. An answer that provides a competitive marketplace, investing in the benefits of technology, but gently guided by a strategic state with the interests of its people at heart.
Darren Jones is the Director of Future Labour, a volunteer powered platform to debate the future of work within the digital economy, which will launch later this year.
He was the prospective Labour MP for Bristol North West at the 2015 General Election and works as a Legal Counsel at a FTSE15 communications company.
Follow Darren Jones on Twitter: www.twitter.com/darrenpjones
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