Work, work, work…work, work, work?
Last Monday (September 5) we celebrated Labor Day here in the United States. Aside from being a day free of work and school, Labor Day is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” And indeed, our country has been and will be built through the hard work of millions of people. But at this time of disruption, globalization, and intense technological change, it’s worth asking, what is the future of work?
In one of this week’s articles, Labor Day: From the Job Loop to the Knowledge Loop (via Universal Basic Income), Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures puts forth the idea that in the United States and many other parts of the world, the default assumption is that humans should expect to participate in the Job Loop: (1) sell labor (2) buy stuff (3) go to step 1. But, he argues, with technological advances (for example, automation or AI-ification of jobs traditionally performed by humans) and other seismic shifts going on in the world, “The real lack of imagination is to think that we must be stuck in the job loop simply because we have been in it for a century and a half. This is to confuse the existing system with humanity’s purpose. Labor is not what humans are here for. Instead of the job loop we should be spending more of our time and attention in the knowledge loop.” He defines the Knowledge Loop as: (1) learn (2) create (3) share (4) go to step 1.
As a student at MIT, I consider myself lucky to be sitting at the intersection of these two loops. Each day, I participate in the Knowledge Loop through taking classes with amazing professors and exploring new ideas with brilliant classmates. With only a few more months until I graduate (and because I like to buy stuff), I also have the good fortune (and confusion) of deciding how I want to participate in the Job Loop. In the end, I believe that Wenger’s overarching hypothesis is correct — that our ideas of what constitutes “work” and why we should do it are evolving — but I also believe that in the end humans will all find ourselves happiest at an intersection of the two loops he outlines, not just in one or the other. Humans will work in order to provide themselves and their loved ones with food, shelter, and nice vacations, but to the extent that they can, they will also seek to learn, create, and share the things that matter to them.
One of the most powerful ideas from Wenger’s piece is that “we have to stop trying to define and find purpose in labor and instead seek it in knowledge and in our relationship to other humans and to nature.” I had the opportunity to go to the Burning Man Festival this year, and what I found most striking there was how people relate to one another — people rarely talked about their jobs unless it came naturally in the course of the conversation, and instead focused on where they were from, what they had enjoyed most about their time(s) at the festival, and what interests and hobbies they held. I know that many of the people I met at Burning Man have had incredibly successful careers, but it was nice to talk to people without starting with “What do you do?” I don’t know what work will look like in the future, but I am excited by the prospect of shifting from just the Job Loop to a more humanizing Job-Knowledge loop.
-Teddy Lee, Contributing Editor