Economy and social affairs

Never work anymore?

(Published in GralsWelt 60/2010)

Today's world of work, dominated by automation, presents our welfare state with the greatest challenges we have ever known. An inventory - and possible new ways for a decent life.

I recently visited an automobile factory where I myself had worked 35 years ago to see what the once well-known production lines look like today. It was impressive to see the modern, automatic production in deserted halls with industrial robots working in time, and this impression made me think.

Economic miracle by hardworking people

In my professional life I still encountered conditions that were typical for mechanization. When I started in a tire factory in 1958, there was even a small, special production facility in which the production machines were driven in the classic way, as in the 19th century, via transmissions with leather belts. Today you can only find something like this in technology museums, not even in developing countries.

"You can recognize a really good idea by the fact that its realization seems impossible from the outset."
Albert Einstein (1879–1955).

Then I saw factories in which hundreds of people worked around the clock in three shifts. The workers were mostly semi-skilled workers without professional training. They could be trained for special tasks in a relatively short time and were then able to earn more with piecework than a simple employee who, however, had a much easier working life. The piece work - I myself earned my money for a year working three shifts in piece - was exhausting; those who were forced to persevere in such a workplace for many years had to pay with their health.

Because the “German economic miracle” began with the hard work of many hardworking people, internationally competitive technical know-how, and low wages[i] and high dollar rates[ii].

Make work easier - or abolish it?

In the mid-1950s the catchphrase “automation” came up, which today hardly anyone knows in its original meaning. Even then, pessimists saw mass unemployment on the horizon due to this prospect for the future.

The word automation comes from the English word automatization. This term was probably used for the first time in the American Ford plants and around 1910 meant the independent transport of workpieces between the machines.

In the 1950s in Germany, automation meant a further development of the already existing mechanization and automation. At that time, automation was understood to mean a (partially) automatic control of manufacturing processes. Control is usually defined as forced control, as is known from the valve control of the four-stroke engine.

Now the automation should bring further developments in such a way that the control took the place of the control. A (process) control is no longer a pre-determined mandatory sequence, but the control loop can react flexibly. Measurement data is continuously incorporated into a control system, which is processed and automatically leads to measures that keep the desired process within target specifications. The controllers available in the 1950s and 1960s were - compared to today's possibilities - still quite primitive, and automation accordingly made slow progress, depending on the task area.

Then she appeared IT technology and expanded the space of what is technically possible into unimagined dimensions; the “third industrial revolution” could begin[iii].  

For us engineers it is now clear that we have been doing away with work for centuries. It started out very modestly, with the aim of making work easier. Easier work is almost inevitably associated with an increase in productivity. Then the question arose: should one work for a shorter time or produce more?

For the entrepreneurs, productivity increases were in the foreground right from the start, and competition did the rest. Trade unions, social politicians and far-sighted entrepreneurs like Henry Ford campaigned for higher wages, shorter working hours and better working conditions - often with success in favorable periods[iv].

In the 21st century we have now entered a phase in which social policy is still looking for answers to the new realities.

The machines are doing more and more what we actually always wanted: They do the work for us. As a result, people and workers are needed less and less in the production process. In the old industrialized countries, the times are over when hundreds, thousands of people streamed through the factory gates before and after the shift change. In particular, jobs for the unskilled are falling more and more; If you do not have a good, specialized training, it is difficult or even impossible to place on our job market, not to say accommodate.

On the other hand, we have almost got used to the fact that large corporations are reporting profit increases and at the same time announcing job cuts. As a rule, the share prices of the companies concerned rise after such news.

It should only be mentioned in passing that with the loss of many jobs, another serious social problem has arisen: The once propagated integration of immigrants with the help of jobs has failed because there is hardly any work left for low-skilled migrants. For example, in 2005 unemployment was 11.7 percent in Germany, 18.5 percent in the state of Berlin, 48.5 percent among Turkish Berliners and over 90 percent among Arab Berliners! (2).

Is there a place in life without a job?

Who would have thought, five or six decades ago, when guest workers were invited into the country, that it would be a matter of a short time until?

• In the factory halls of large-scale industry, between many robots, there are only a few working people to be found;

• There will soon no longer be any need for cashiers in the supermarket;

• the debiting of the travel expenses and / or the ticket inspection can take place automatically;

• ATMs are ousting bank tellers;

• Robots can replace sales staff;

• Beverage mixing systems eliminate the need for bartenders;

• Satellite-controlled robots plow, sow, fertilize, harvest, mow the lawn, etc .;

• Robots replace the waiters (such robots are already running on trial in a restaurant in Hong Kong);

• Run trains without a driver;

• be able to fly planes without a pilot;

• being able to drive cars without a chauffeur;

• Internet trading puts traditional sales channels under pressure;

• electronic books and reading devices call the established publishing and book trade into question ...

Ultimately, almost all human work that can also be done by machines will in all probability be taken over by machines sooner or later!

We do not need to think about abolishing machines in order to inevitably create a need for human labor. Even at the beginning of industrialization, this path has proven to be the wrong way, one that can only lead backwards, not forwards. Because prosperity without high-tech has long been impossible.

Actually, we are facing paradisiacal conditions in which most of the work is done by machines that have no working time limit and no strike. You can lay on your lazy skin, watch the hard-working robots at work, and live like in a land of milk and honey!

Or is the land of milk and honey, life without work, without meaningful activity, but more of a hell than paradise? What would you do if you no longer felt compelled to show up at work every day for the sake of survival?

Some people will have to or may continue to use traditional workplaces. The machines, our “iron angels”, have to be (further) developed, produced, supervised, serviced and repaired. But according to the forecasts made by the American sociologist and economist Jeremy Rifkin in an interview, a fraction of today's population is sufficient. In his view, by 2010 only 12 percent of the working population will be needed in factories. By 2020 it should then be only 2 percent worldwide. This estimate is likely to be exaggerated; but it tends to be true, and that is frightening enough!

And in the service industry? Here, too, rationalization is taking place, staff downsizing, more is being implemented with fewer employees and better results are being achieved.

But what do the majority of those dependent on income do when they are neither needed in production nor in the service sector? Where can they find a place to live if there is no job for them?

The greatest challenges ever known

For many centuries the production of goods and food and the prosperity that arose from it was based on the labor of the people. It therefore only seemed fair to make income, participation in prosperity, dependent on work. In the course of development, income - actually livelihood - was linked to a paid job.

But if jobs are increasingly being replaced by machines, how can each individual have a job, that is, an "income place"? Or how can the wealth produced by machines be fairly distributed to all citizens? Not only for those who are gainfully employed[v] pursue, but also those who cannot be offered paid work?

We are thus faced with the greatest socio-political challenge ever known. Working life was changing at such a rapid pace that the population's perception of the upheavals and the consciousness of politicians cannot follow suit quickly enough. Hardly anyone dares to openly state the revolutionary changed conditions in which we are already living:

• The much vaunted, beautiful political goal of full employment has become an impossible dream, because the jobs required for it are dwindling. There is no help from government pressure to force people to accept cheap jobs.

• Even the idea that one could distribute the work more evenly only leads to dumping wages; because there is not enough paid work for everyone!

• Statutory minimum wages could ensure a decent livelihood for those who find work. But this would not multiply jobs. Some economists fear that wage floors will have to accelerate the relocation of jobs to low-wage countries.

• Some neo-liberals would prefer to leave wages entirely to the free play of supply and demand. Then it would only be a matter of time before the incomes of employees around the world would have equalized. In the industrialized countries this meant a downright drop in wages. The associated social upheavals are difficult to imagine.

• It will not be possible to maintain the link between income and the workplace - just like the increasing dependence on international capital in the course of globalization.

• To what extent such developments can be stopped by isolating the industrialized countries from the emerging countries (utopian in the age of globalization) is a matter of dispute. (See “The globalization swindle” under “Economy and social affairs”).

 New ways to save the welfare state

If we do not want to slide into pre-revolutionary conditions that can quickly get out of control, we have to think about completely new ways of saving the welfare state and, above all, social peace. The violent protests that are already flaring up in a number of countries - including Europe - should warn us.

At the risk of encountering the incomprehension of some readers, I would like to mention a proposal that has recently been considered again - actually an old one - that aims to break new ground: an unconditional basic income[vi] for all citizens! This basic security frees the individual from worrying about their daily bread and gives them the freedom to work what they want and to develop within the framework of their personality. It would offer everyone the opportunity to learn, to create work, to study, to do voluntary service, to become artistically creative, to take on honorary positions or to provide other charitable services, paid or unpaid.

There would be savings for the state, since a large part of the social benefits and the associated bureaucracy would be eliminated.

These new paths, which currently seem utopian to many, should be supported by a fundamental shift in taxes. Our tax system comes from a time of domestic economy in which large parts of the population were self-sufficient. In the age of the worldwide division of labor (globalization), this income-based taxation is counterproductive. In the future, it should not be the individual's income from work that should be taxed, but his consumption. Instead of the income tax, a consumption tax that particularly burdens energy and raw material consumption, not work. That would also make ecological sense, because light and energy-saving devices would be interesting, repairs could be worthwhile, and illegal work would no longer exist. One could even think about a machine tax instead of today's wage tax. After all, in 2007 personnel costs in German industry only accounted for around 17 percent of total costs. At the same time, corporate profits rose while employee net income adjusted for inflation fell. The social benefits and a large part of the tax revenue (wage tax) depend on these low wage shares, while the machines are tax-subsidized through depreciation.

When nobody has to work anymore ...

What would happen. when nobody is forced to work anymore?
The attitude towards work was very different in different epochs of the West. For a long time it was considered a privilege not to have to work. Accordingly, the rich could largely leave the necessary activities to the poor or slaves, limit themselves to directing the work, or devote themselves to artistic and scientific fields. That changed with the advent of the "Protestant work ethic"[vii]. So one could see it as a positive state of affairs when in the future no one is forced to work “to eat” any more.

We would probably be surprised what useful developments could result in a society without compulsory labor for the satisfaction of basic needs.

Perhaps a few would spend their lives in front of the television or kill their time playing computer games. But in my opinion the majority of people would work, learn, participate, make a meaningful contribution to shaping our society; in short: be creative. You have to give them the chance! All you have to do is ask yourself what you would personally do.

This could result in completely new developments in parts of culture and civilization that have so far been neglected as "non-economic". For example in childcare, in schools, in nursing and care for the elderly, in religious communities, in landscaping, nature conservation, art, music, sport, theater, clubs, all of which draw their vitality from people's voluntary work. In this so-called "third sector"[viii], the "nonprofit sector", the greatest growth rates for meaningful activity are possible!

If it is not possible to develop this sector and to make it attractive for those excluded from the income world by a job, then the “fourth sector” will develop dramatically: black market, illegal employment and especially (organized) crime. Society then becomes corrupt and unstable, and prisons overflow.[ix]

The fate of millions of people ...
“The fate of millions of people rests in the hands of greedy entrepreneurs and inactive governments. Many workers who live in fear of being laid off, who involuntarily have to be content with part-time work and a low salary, or who are even dependent on government support, feel the consequences of the global economic restructuring first-hand. With each new humiliation, their self-confidence and self-esteem continue to decline. They are no longer needed, they became superfluous and finally disappear completely behind the shine of the new high-tech economy. "               Jeremy Rifkin (3, p. 157).

“Bread and games” are of little use for spiritual advancement!

I dare to say that we need fundamentally different social and socio-political solutions than those we are used to in past centuries. Many groups, whose interests the current conditions still serve, will fiercely defend themselves against the inevitable innovations that contradict the old familiar. But waiting and doing nothing is certainly the worst model. Even the argument that something like this can only be tackled “globally” shouldn't keep us from thinking.

Many working people drew and still draw their value awareness from their profession and their work performance. If their work is taken from them, they are faced with an inner vacuum that cries out for meaningful fulfillment. "Bread and games" alone do not offer a fulfilled life and are of little use for spiritual advancement of the human being; this has already been shown in Roman history. Our society must therefore be organized in a new way that not only secures a place in life for everyone, allows (modest) participation in prosperity, but also enables them to participate individually in shaping our community. In addition to earthly activities, inner, spiritual development must be given a high priority.

Basically, we are still faced with the question of distributive justice, which has been discussed for centuries[x]. Anarchists, communists, economists, philanthropists, philosophers, socialists, social politicians, theologians have developed a wide range of ideas yesterday and today. It is indisputable for all of us that we now Have to think about the future organization of our society so that we can act in good time and, if possible, without catastrophic pressure to act! For this, “brain-storming” is essential - including the introduction of exotic, at first glance utopian or over-reaching proposals, from which something really new and useful can then crystallize.

(1) Der Spiegel No. 51/2007, dated December 17, 2007.
(2) Ghadban Dr. Ralph, “Europeanization of Islam or Islamization of Europe?”, Lecture on March 22, 2007 at Schloss Bückeburg, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker Gesellschaft eV
(3) Rifkin Jeremy, The End of Work and its Future, Campus, Frankfurt 2004.
(4) Werner Götz W. Income for everyone, Kiepenheuer & Witch, Cologne 2007.
(5) Werner Götz W. The unconditional basic income (audio CD).


(8) http: //www.

[i] My hourly wage as a factory worker was DM 2.13 at the beginning of 1958 (standard wage DM 2.08 + 0.05 shift allowance).
[ii] After the currency reform, the US$ was at DM 4.20 for a long time.
[iii] The “first industrial revolution”, which began at the end of the 18th century, can be understood as the steam engine and the use of coal as an energy source. In the "Second Industrial Revolution" oil competed with coal and electricity became important (second half of the 19th century until after the First World War). The “third industrial revolution” began with computer technology after the Second World War.
[iv] See. "A totally crazy experiment"Under" Economy and Social Affairs ".
[v] The typical "instruction-bound, paid, socially insurable gainful employment".
[vi] As far as I know, the idea of a “social income” was first brought into the public domain in 1963 by an “Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution” (3, p. 205). In the meantime, private initiatives or political parties (for example in France) advocate this.
[vii] See the box “Poverty is not a disgrace” in “Why we stumble into the population trap"Under" Ecology ".
[viii] The first sector is industry, the second is the service sector.
[ix] In 1980 the US prison population was 330,000. By the year 2000, almost 2 million people were in detention! (3, p. 11.).
[x] See. "The equity gap"Under" Economy and Social Affairs ".