On work

Originally written — 6/4/15

We spend most of our lives at work. As such, one of the most fundamental philosophical questions we are confronted by is — what is work? Recently, the subject of the future of the workplace is seemingly inescapable. From the mad rush to computer science classes in high schools and colleges across the country, to the avalanche of thought pieces on robotics and artificial intelligence, the topic has gripped the country’s imagination. Particularly for young professionals, whose nascent careers seem to be either ordained or condemned by the shifting technological landscape, it is a vexing issue that calls into question our skills, choices and worth. More broadly, it raises one of the most basic existential questions. Will I matter?

However, to this point, the majority of the discussions around work has centered on the roles of machines, the automation of work and the replacement of human workers by robotic ones. Yet, I am less concerned by machines becoming men, than I am with men becoming machines. By this, I don’t refer to the Kurzwelian vision of the singularity, androids or the increasing integration of technology into the human body (although this is a worthwhile, but separate, discussion). Instead, I am fascinated and concerned by the increasingly systematized skills, work and life in the developed world, and the consequences of this for developed societies, and the world at large.

To bring this back from the abstract, let me offer an anecdote. At a recent get-together in San Francisco, the type populated by the well-educated, well-paid millenials that every social network is eager to sell to advertisers, the topic of political engagement came up. One young woman, a graduate of the top ranked public high school in the US, the top ranked computer science university and an employee at a major Silicon Valley corporation announced that she had never voted. Moreover, she failed to see the significance of politics on her daily life. She rode a corporate bus to work, took Ubers around the city, and ordered food through delivery apps. She lives in a self-contained bubble, for better or worse, insulated from the trials and tragedies of those less fortunate.

Why, one might ask, does this differ from the views of the well-off and privileged in any other era? Indeed, her logic has undoubtedly been repeated countless times over by the much-maligned investment bankers of Wall Street. However, while the worldview of bankers might be altered by curbing excessive salaries (as was quite successfully done immediately following the financial crisis, and resulted in a rapid decline in undergraduate matriculation to these institutions), the fundamental skill set and nature of the work done by this young woman have created a set of conditions that threaten the basic structures of our society, should we leave them unaddressed.

As our economy has shifted to become more knowledge-intensive, the architects of our digital systems have rightfully been rewarded in the process. These are the people who build systems that take us places faster, deliver us food more easily and bring us information from all over in an instant. Their innovations have made our lives immensely easier, and they are reaping the just rewards. Of these, the greatest rewards go to those who are very good at finding a very specific thing, very quickly.

I term this skill, of finding one particular thing, to be “specialization”. Just as machinists are specialists in producing a particular machine’s piece, programmers specialize in providing certain pieces of information, in a certain manner.

The economic benefits of this skill are apparent, as universities scramble to add courses prioritizing skills based on specialization and linear thinking, while lateral thinking and the liberal arts fight to justify their worth in curriculum reviews and the op-ed pages of glossy magazines.

The cost of specialization is tunnel vision, and a decline in our ability to see across spheres of life. During a period of increasing inequality in America, a great deal of our technological innovation focuses on identifying and delivering services to individuals, divorcing us from our peers, not to mention those in different income brackets. Rideshares shield us from the exhausted parent on welfare, riding a bus to a second job, alongside raucous young professionals leaving a San Francisco dinner party. At a core level, specialization rewards our most base human instincts of self-centeredness, encouraging us to double-down on exactly what we know. Yet, this mindset is not sustainable for long if the structure of society is to hold.

The effects of specialization are not unique — past eras of prosperity brought a similar narrow focus, both in the workplace and everyday life. As woman’s suffrage was coupled with a rise of office technology in the 1920s, a generation of white collar workers and consumers blossomed. Or in the manufacturing heyday of the 1950s, the growing middle class used its newfound wealth to sculpt idyllic lives in their houses in the suburbs. Yet, the codependent nature of our society has always followed these periods with a sharp snapback, whether socially, politically or economically. In the 1920s, the Great Depression quickly put an end to any notion of a less unified society, as people across the economic spectrum rushed for government assistance. In the 1960s, the continued oppression of black Americans finally could no longer be ignored, culminating in the tumultous peak of the civil rights movement.

Where then, does this leave us in the question of specialization, work and society today? In some respects, the die is cast. The tools and skills needed in today’s workplace, as information becomes more easily accessible, require greater depth than ever before. Of this, there can be no doubt. For the vast majority of people, adopting specialized skills are a necessary and critical component of making a living in the modern economy. Fortunately, the aforementioned access to information has also lowered the hurdles to a variety of specialized skills, allowing a history major to transform himself into a software engineer virtually overnight.

Thus, in the short term, government plays a critical role in serving as a check to the inherently narrow focus that specialization can bring to a society. It will take the initiative of our public leaders to demand improvements in infrastructure or expansion of social services to assist the wide swath of people whose jobs have become obsolete, again, virtually overnight. Without the balancing provided by the government, we risk a much more rapid swing of the pendulum, a fierce and sudden call for the rebuilding of a more equal and interdependent society. If history teaches us anything, it is that this change will come, sooner or later. Government action can be the deciding factor between a sharp change of direction and a gentle easing of course.

In the long term, in examining the businesses and skills most likely to succeed in a changing economy, it is important to note the two major headwinds that face specialization. The first, as mentioned, is the tendency of developed societies towards greater, rather than less, interdependence and equality. Indeed, it is the reduction of inequality that is often a key indicator of economic maturation and development. As the marginalized and oppressed of our societies take voice, whether blocking traffic or throwing themselves at our borders, a narrow focus will no longer be an option.

Secondly, the broader advances in technology that have been the fruit of intense specialization up to this point may also prove to be its undoing. Many of the greatest minds in technology, from Elon Musk to Bill Gates, have held up artificial intelligence and machine learning as a greater existential threat. In an more immediate sense, the increasing ability of machines to learn new, complex tasks, allows them to take on increasingly specialized tasks of men. Just as specialized automobile manufacturing has become automated, is it unreasonable to imagine a world in which basic coding is done faster, and error-free, by machines?

In such a world, pushed by these social, political and technological forces, the greatest differentiator for individuals and firms at work will be the ability to see across disciplines and spheres of life. Specialized skills may build these firms, but their long-term value proposition will be dependent on their ability to be integrative. Businesses and systems that bridge gaps between people and build connections across industries will reap the greatest rewards in the years to come, whether connecting villages to loans through mobile banking or ex-convicts to jobs through social impact bonds. In a world with innumerable ways to answer a question and provide data to support it, it will be critical to ask the right questions. It is in this skill, in fundamental human curiosity, that we can be sure we will continue to matter. So long as we continue to ask questions, to seek new things, we will matter in the workforce. When we fully cede creativity in our work, we face all of our worst ontological fears. Despite the forces that set us apart, these shared fears also keep us together.