ABC News Breakfast

26 September 2017




SUBJECT/S: New book Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age


JOHANNA NICHOLSON: Artificial intelligence promises to make our lives easier and our jobs less stressful. But it will also continue the trend of human workers being replaced by machines. Not long until we're replaced, I think!


MICHAEL ROWLAND: How do you know I'm not a robot already?

NICHOLSON: (Laughs) Maybe you are! It's a challenge facing the entire economy and the subject of a new book written by former NBN chief Mike Quigley and Labor frontbencher Jim Chalmers.


ROWLAND: The book is called Changing Jobs: The Fair Go In The New Machine Age. And co-author Jim Chalmers joins us now from Brisbane. Jim Chalmers, good morning to you. 


JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FINANCE: Good morning, Michael. You two are irreplaceable!


ROWLAND: (Laughs) Thank you very much. We'll keep that one. Hey, how will disruption, technological change, which many people are embracing - how will that, you argue in this book, increase potentially inequality in Australia? 


CHALMERS: Technological change is something that we should embrace. It's something which has enormous upsides for us. It has the capacity to address, if not overcome, so many of the obstacles to a good life in a thriving society. But there's a lot of anxiety out there - well-founded anxiety - that people have about whether they fit in workplaces increasingly dominated by machines. What Mike Quigley and I try to do in this book called Changing Jobs, is we try to say how do we harness the big benefits of technological change while addressing some of those other issue that people are worried about, including increasing equality, which comes from the hollowing out of the labour market? How do we get people ready, via the education system, and other public policies, like social security, and industrial relations? But also importantly, how do we change our national mindset to take advantage of technological change as well?


ROWLAND: OK, in practice, how will this apply to a worker in his 50s in a factory or, dare I say, a worker in a coal-fired power station about to lose his or her job? What can they take from this argument?


CHALMERS: I think we've become accustomed historically and traditionally to think of automation and robotics as something which replaces manual work, whether it be the factory workers that you just mentioned, or process work in the manufacturing sector. We've seen that for some time. But what's really different about this revolution, in artificial intelligence in particular, is the way that it's really worked its way up the income scale. So, it's not just those kind of jobs which are at risk, though they are, but also jobs that we would consider to be middle-income jobs. And in the book we talk, for example, about translators. We talk, for example, about the legal profession. All kinds of middle-income jobs which are being hollowed out. And what that means is that people who would ordinarily be earning a professional wage, are pushed down to compete for some of the lower-income jobs, which won't be replaced - jobs like gardening and the like - and that has implications for inequality. And also implications for unemployment. 


ROWLAND: And you say there, you hammered the nail on the head, about people losing income. You address head on in your book calls from some quarters for a universal basic income to be offered by the government through contributions from elsewhere to help ease the transition of workers who lose their job while they find another career. Why, in your view, wouldn't that work?


CHALMERS: We thought long and hard, Mike Quigley and I, in the writing of this book, about a universal basic income, because there are a lot of well-motivated, intelligent people who think it's a good idea. But having looked into it in some detail, we don't think it will make society more fair. We actually think by giving more people the same amount of money, and trading away some of that means testing and targeting of social security benefits, we actually think that will make society less fair. It's also a very expensive thing to do. Even if we gave everybody, for example, $10,000, that would be more than twice the current social security budget. So, we had a good look at it. We don't dismiss the people who have pitched it up as an idea. But it's not for us. We've got 33 other recommendations, including some in the social security system, to try and smooth out people's incomes as they have more and more transitions between jobs. We think that's a better way to go than a universal basic income. 


ROWLAND: Yeah, it is a very compelling read and lots of food for thought for parents and grandparents deeply worried about where the jobs will be for kids and grandkids. Jim Chalmers, thank you very much for joining us from Brisbane.


CHALMERS: Thank you, Michael.