Labor force participation rates, which are the percentage of people in a given country who have any job at all, have been declining since around 2001. So have median incomes. Mean incomes, on the other hand, have increased. This means that while the average person is less likely to work, and likely to earn less money if they do, the total amount of money being earned per person has increased because of gains in income at the top.
This is no conspiracy of the powerful and wealthy keeping the little man down. This is the obvious result of our post industrial technological age. In the past, greater production meant more labor. Today, it likely means better software, more robots, or bigger stores. While this trend started when the first computers were put into commercial use decades ago, it, for a long time, went against the long running, fundamental labor shortage in the United States. Most companies, then, could use more employees because there was an undersupply of educated labor with access to capital in the industrialized world as there had been since the second World War, and the United States was well placed to fill it. But the power of modern technology finally overcame this deficit sometimes around the turn of the century.
This trend will not stop. The travel agents and bank tellers were not the only job to be largely automated out of existence. In the United States today, some six million people are professional drivers such as long haul truck rivers, taxi drivers, industrial truck drivers and bus drivers. (There are around 138 million jobs in the United States today. So drivers account for between four and five percent of all workers.) Most people know that Google and DARPA are independently testing driverless vehicles capable of navigating cities, threatening to replace not only the tedium of driving but a tremendous number of people employed as drivers. But few know that the largest mining company in the world, Rio Tinto, has already replaced 30% of its driving personnel with automated systems. Already. Time is running out for people employed as drivers.
This sort of progress is good for all of us in the sense that it decreases prices and increases incomes. All sorts of products and services would be cheaper if automation overtook the driving professions and many people would have higher incomes. But another six million people would be out of work. But when industry after industry faces this sort of automation in a time when new industries are more likely to be computer programs than anything needing more than a dozen employees to serve the world, we face an everlasting crisis that requires a new way of providing for everyone.
Things will keep getting better, in the sense that profits will soar and prices will fall. And they will keep getting worse in the sense that incomes will fall and permanent, structural unemployment will grow. A Universal Basic Income can bridge this gap. Without it, we face despair and destitution for many. With it, we can all be proud of our rising technological sophistication. With it, we can all share in the warmth and light of our collectively bright future. And the earlier we enact it, the faster we can allow our economy to be remade technologically, and wealthier we will collectively become. Lets use our efforts to improve our world instead of fighting the inevitable and struggling with stopgap measures. The Universal Basic Income, in one form or another, will come eventually. These trends will eventually demand it. The destitute masses will eventually demand it. But long before that, I hope we take advantage of rare opportunity to embrace the tide of history instead of self destructively struggling against it.