The Future of Work
Even though I try not to think about it, I‘ve come around to the idea that, as my husband Marvin Lee Brown puts it, “eventually all work will be done by three guys with a Ph.D. running everything and the rest of us will just have to figure out what to do with ourselves.” The first time he said that to me I wanted to punch him in the throat. I really didn’t like thinking about that reality. It sounded dystopic. A future where there was no work? Obviously that would mean power and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few and abject poverty for the rest of us, right? He tried to explain that there could be a utopian alternative, but my mind had already rage-quit the conversation.
As the daughter of hard-working people, I was raised with the expectation that I would also be a hard-working productive member of society. I was also raised to believe that hard work pays off. If you go out there and you grind, eventually, you can climb to the top. These are the notions that a child raised within a capitalist, post-industrial society brings with them into the workplace. The problem is: we don’t live in a post-industrial society anymore, we live in an information society, and the name of the game is different now.
To explain the difference between these types of societies, I first need to explain what they are. Daniel Bell, an American sociologist and writer, was largely credited with popularizing the term “post-industrial” through his book The Coming of a Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting. In his book, Bell said, “the heart of the post-industrial society is a class that is primarily a professional class,” which we can take to mean white-collar corporate professionals or knowledge workers, rather than blue-collar workers. However, access to professional jobs within Corporate America is only given to a few. Education plays a large part in granting access to white-collar jobs and white-collar wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the more degrees you have, the more money you have, and the more employable you are.
Given this information, blue-collar workers (whom in regard to education tend to occupy the bottom half of the chart above) are royally screwed in the job market. Blue-collar workers are largely marginalized, under-represented, and their jobs are rapidly becoming automated or outsourced. The 2016 RAND Presidential Election Panel Survey illustrates quite effectively that this particular cross-section of the American population (under-represented blue-collar workers) tends to vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.
There’s been an overall decline in the amount of jobs for these individuals. The establishment hasn’t really helped them so they vote for the anti-establishment candidate. What has been happening to blue-collar jobs is now starting to happen to white-collar jobs as technology advances. This is at least in part why anti-establishment candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders appeal to people: they express the need for change in a rapidly changing world.
If the goal of the post-industrial society is to be employed in the professional class, the goal of the information society is to automate the professional class. The United Nations Educational Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines an information society as:
“based on technological breakthroughs that risk providing little more than ‘a mass of indistinct data’ for those who don’t have the skills to benefit from it.”
Whereas knowledge societies:
“contribute to the well-being of individuals and communities, and encompass social, ethical and political dimensions.”
What we need to do, is take these information-age technological breakthroughs, and figure out how they can benefit more than just select groups of individuals. We need to become more like a knowledge society.
There’s a brilliant TED Talk called: Are droids taking our jobs from Andrew McAffee, a research scientist from MIT. He explains in very straightforward terms that, yeah, the droids are coming for our jobs. He gives a few really good examples including one that is particularly disheartening about an article on Forbes that was written by an algorithm, rather than a person. According to McAffee, “It’s not decent — it’s perfect.” When you think about the things that define humanity, language has got to be at the top of that list, and now we’re building machines, creating programs and engineering formulas that can even do that better than we can. That’s absolutely a scary thought. Thinking about the future in an abstract way is easy, but really trying to picture what it looks like is terrifying because then we might have to think about our own inevitable uselessness. It‘s a bit more comforting to think that there will always be at least some limitations to what technology can do.
McAffee is confident in a utopian future though. The reason for his confidence he credits to perhaps the most influential technological development in human history: the steam engine, which helped overcome the limitations of our muscles. He goes on to say:
“What we’re in the middle of now is overcoming the limitations of our individual brains and infinitely multiplying our mental power.”
The story of John Henry is a loveable tall-tale for a reason. The Luddites protested for a reason. The one thing to take away from these stories is that progress cannot be stopped, but it can be adapted to. People fear job loss because it gives them pride, and self-worth, and social purpose, but more importantly a paycheck. They recoil from anything that gets in the way of makin’ those dollar dollar bills y’all. We all have to eat, right?
So what happens when one day all of our jobs are automated away? Hopefully, eventually, we’ll all realize that jobs don’t necessarily need to be tied to wages and come around to the idea of a universal basic income (UBI).
In his article Welcome to the Post Work Economy Ben Schiller suggests that a UBI might be the way to go, and backs it up with information from the book Postcapitalism written by Paul Mason. And he’s right, we do need to start thinking about what happens in a post-capitalism society as the job market shrinks to a non-market. He gives three main reasons to consider this shift: the financial collapse of 2008, information goods, and climate change. In addition to the reasons he gives for why we need to shift economic strategies, I would add that advancements in technology have made it downright urgent.
It took me a while to separate the idea of work from social purpose, and it took me longer still to separate both from money. About three years, actually.
It’s been three years since my husband and I had that conversation about the future of work. In those three years, I’ve watched my toddler figure out how to work an iPad, Google created a self-driving car, 3-D printing and mobile depositing have become more ubiquitous, and someone grew fully functional liver cells from stem cells. All of that should have screamed the obvious at my oblivious face, but there was one thing that launched a rocket at the blinders I had on: I started working in a development environment where automation is venerated above all else. Every day I watch the guys I work closely with try to automate themselves out of job — enthusiastically.
Automating away all the jobs is an inevitability. What everyone needs to realize is that it’s not such a bad thing. How many times have you shown up at work on a Monday, and replied with, “Not long enough,” when a co-worker asks how your weekend was? How many times have you wished you could spend more time with family? How many times have you thought about just not coming back from a vacation? I’d wager that a good majority of us don’t actually want to go to work. We do it because we need money to live, and we do it to occupy our time. A rare few probably love their jobs to the point that they couldn’t envision a life without it. What we have to decide collectively, and this will require conversation on a global scale, is how we survive in a landscape where there are no jobs. There will always be work to pursue, and things to occupy your time with, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be what we do to earn a living.