The future of work in America is uncertain. What we know is that things are going to change. Technology will upend countless careers, workers across fields will be displaced, and it’s not entirely clear how many jobs will be replaced.
When driverless trucks are manufactured at scale, which will happen far sooner than many realize (as soon as five years), America’s 3.5 million truck drivers will be dispensable. That doesn’t mean the profession of truck driving will disappear overnight, but it will shrink considerably.
According to Morgan Stanley, autonomous technology will save the freight industry $168 billion annually, nearly half of which will come from staff reductions.
What is true of the freight industry will be true of many others. We will enter what the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson called “an era of technological unemployment,” in which machines render human labor useless and inefficient.
Andy Stern is the former president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which today represents close to 2 million workers in the United States and Canada. He resigned his post in 2010 and accepted a position as a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Richard Paul Richman Center for Business, Law and Public Policy.
For the last year or so, Stern has argued that a universal basic income (UBI) is the best response to the social and economic disruption caused by technological change.
UBI is a form of social security in which citizens receive an unconditional wage from the government. In his new book, Raising the Floor, Stern says a UBI will become essential as automation wreaks havoc on the labor market.
I met Stern in September at the Vox Conversations conference, where he discussed the challenges ahead for workers. I sat down with him recently for a broader conversation about some of the issues he raised in that discussion.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
You spent your entire career working for the SEIU. Why did you resign in 2010?
I was proud and really privileged to have worked most of my life trying to change other people’s lives. I considered the union movement the best job creation and antipoverty and health care and pension program we had in the 20th century. But it wasn’t working as well in the 21st century.
I’ve watched the labor movement go from one in three workers when I began to one in 16 when I finally left. And it just seemed like if I wanted to change workers’ lives, I needed to find another way to do so.
There seemed to be something going on in terms of the way work was organized, the way the market was working, and the way that technology was about to accelerate these changes. I wasn’t entirely sure how to navigate this, and that made it very difficult to lead.
Can the labor movement, such as it is, adapt and become a significant force moving forward?
Well, I think it’ll always have a somewhat boutique role in representing individual employees. To be sure, influencing government policy needs to be a point of emphasis. Whether it’s the fight for a $15 minimum wage or it’s the effort to win paid family leave or scheduling reform — people are turning to the government to resolve issues for workers that unions won’t do.
The goal, ultimately, is to get people to change their business practices. If the labor movement can find an economic model that doesn’t solely rely on members’ dues, I think you’ll see them play a much larger role in labor market policies, in social policy, in benefit policy, and those benefits will redound to all workers — not just union members.
Does the collapse of unions mean the death of the American dream?
I think that if people don’t intervene right now, it will. Fifty percent of Americans say they don’t believe in the American dream, and they’re justified in believing that. People with college degrees are not making anywhere near the kind of progress that their parents made, and that’s not their fault.
The possibility that you can end up with job security and retirement attached to it is statistically diminishing over time. The American dream doesn’t have to be dead, but it is dying. All the resources and assets are available to make it real. It’s just that we have a huge distribution problem.
Unions and the government used to play an important part at the top of the market, but this is less true today. The market completely distributes toward those at the top. Unions simply aren’t as effective in terms of their impact on the economy, and government has been somewhat on the sidelines in recent years.
Let’s pivot from unions to universal basic income, which is a cardinal issue for you these days. In your book, Raising the Floor, you conclude that a UBI will eventually be necessary. Can you say, first, what UBI means and, second, why you think we need it?
A universal basic income is essentially giving every single working-age American a check every month, much like we do with social security for elderly people. It’s an unconditional stipend, as it were.
The reason it’s necessary is we’re now learning through lots of reputable research that technological change is accelerating, and that this process will continue to displace workers and terminate careers. A significant number of tasks now performed by humans will be performed by machines and artificial intelligence. We could very well see 5 million jobs eliminated by the end of the decade because of technology.
We’ve already seen Uber-deployed driverless cars in Pittsburgh, and driverless trucks will be deployed in the next five to six years — we’ve already seen them across Europe. The largest job in 29 states is driving a truck. There are 3 and a half million people who operate trucks and 5 million more who support them in various ways.
So there’s a tsunami of change on its way, and the question is twofold. One is how does America go through a transition to what will be I think an economy with far fewer jobs — particularly middle-class jobs? What policies will guide us through this transition? And second, what do we want this to look like on the other end?
I believe a UBI is a way to ease the transition, and it’s also a way to provide a floor for people — not necessarily a substitute for work, but a supplement to work that allows them to have a sense of economic security, have consumer buying power. We want to allow people to be entrepreneurs, to take risks and raise kids and do other things without turning the world into the Hunger Games.
Obviously you’re an advocate for a UBI, but I’d like to hear what you think is the most compelling counterargument against UBI.
Certainly our concept of work is problematic. This is a country in which people have not figured out what to do if they don’t work for money. I think there are many other ways that people potentially can work but, psychologically, the Protestant work ethic is embedded in the psyche of our country. The idea that someone would get something for nothing is anathema here. People that work feel like those who don’t shouldn’t be rewarded. It’s just an alien concept.
The politics of this is fraught with landmines. Conservatives in particular will reject UBI as inherently un-American or an extension of the welfare state. And the whole notion of work is tied to a philosophy of self-reliance in this country, which is almost a religion.
But there is a deeply conservative argument in defense of UBI. Once the economic realities become impossible to ignore, this will appear more pragmatic and less radical every day.
Absolutely. Some of the biggest intellectuals in the conservative movement have been supporters of UBI, people like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Charles Murray. They all argued that the current welfare system eliminates people’s liberty and that if we want to get people more freedom and more opportunity and end poverty, we should just get people cash and get the state out of the business of managing an overwrought welfare system.
Charles Murray, the conservative scholar, is probably the leading proponent of universal basic income, and he now argues that technology will create a tsunami of labor market destruction of jobs and that UBI is a program that meets the philosophical tenets of conservatism.
In that view, UBI is an alternative to the welfare state, not an extension of it?
Some people would say we should eliminate all the welfare programs, including social security and Medicare. I think it’s more about blending UBI with a different kind of system. But certainly we could modify things because a lot of the programs — food stamps, housing, unemployment — are just ways of giving people money, and if we’re going to just do it unilaterally we shouldn’t run two systems side by side, and we probably can’t afford two systems side by side in any case.
So the debate’s going to be which of the current welfare programs do we cash out, and how do we blend this with the existing social safety net and make it affordable for the country.
What sort of cultural impact would you expect a UBI to have on the country?
I would say we’re experiencing the cultural change right now. Many people would argue that the anger on the left and the right, from Sanders supporters and from Trump supporters, is a manifestation of these changes. The economy isn’t working for people, and we all know it.
So I think we’re going through the cultural change without a willingness to admit that a lot of the uneasiness and unhappiness and anxiety in the country is caused by the lack of good and stable jobs. I think we have to admit that something big is going on, and that we’re at the front of the storm, but this is only the beginning of the disruption.
The question is, will we admit this and try to figure out how to ameliorate it or will we bury our heads in the sand and ignore it?
Against the backdrop of these populist waves on the left and the right, do you see UBI as an idea with any traction in Washington?
I don’t see it now because I think no one wants to admit what’s happening. No one wants to admit that our half-measures aren’t working and won’t work. I think people completely underestimate the speed at which these changes are occurring.
If we don’t implement something like a UBI, what does work and the middle class look like in 30 years?
It looks like the Hunger Games. It’s more of what we’re beginning to see now: an enclave of extremely successful people at the center and then everyone else on the margins. There will be fewer opportunities in a hollowed out and increasingly zero-sum economy.
If capital trumps labor, the people who own will keep getting wealthier and the people who supply labor will become less necessary. And this is exactly what AI and robotics and software are now doing: substituting capital for labor.
There are a lot of people, technological optimists in particular, who acknowledge that workers will be displaced in this emergent economy, but seem convinced that those workers will be absorbed or re-employed.
Are they too optimistic?
I don’t think they’re too optimistic. I think that’s just one scenario. There are other, far scarier scenarios, and I don’t understand why we wouldn’t want to prepare for those.
Work has always been tethered to identity in this country. Do we have to completely rethink the concept of work in this new world?
Women have always worked historically raising families, which everyone sees as a great value, but it was not paid work. UBI will solve this problem.
People have always taken care of their parents, which in some cases is a paid job and in other cases it’s not paid work. The same thing is true about tutoring your child, or volunteering at a hospital or as a Little League coach or with any other service organization.
We need to decide that creative activity, such as learning a language, painting, writing plays or books, is work. Or that trying to build a business or solve a problem or learn new skills is work, even if you’re not being compensated.
We’re also going to need to appreciate that there are many other things that people can do to self-actualize, which may be the most important adventure that people can travel to make life fulfilling, and it may not be what we now call work.