Our recent Great Recession drew attention to declining participation in the workforce – that is, a growing percentage of our population is unemployed by chance or by choice. The trend started before the last days of Bush 43’s administration – consider the regional depression that accompanies the demise of Youngstown steel mills since the late 1970s. Continuing automation – robots and software, from hospital operating rooms to fast food outlets – is replacing workers. The self-driving car, a true auto-mobile, “could soon threaten driving, the most common job occupation among American men.”
So says Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. (Enter World Without Work in your favorite search engine – the article inspires quite a few responses.) America’s most valuable company in 1964 was AT&T employing over 700,000 workers. Today’s communications giant of similar value is Google, employing 55,000.If the trend continues, the world will look very different at the end of the 21st century than it does today, but “the signs so far are murky.”
Why do people work?
- For money, of course. Thompson points to the 19th century as a possible model of a time with few wage-jobs, but I have trouble envisioning a nation of subsistence farmers arising. Even if it did, some cash is needed (I think it was in the 19th century, too.) People need food, housing, and also a share of their society’s norms, and money buys those things.
- For “a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose… Many people are happier complaining about jobs than they are luxuriating in too much leisure.” Most jobs aren’t fulfilling – Thompson asks, if your job was a video game, would you play it? But unemployed people – including retirees – watch TV rather than pursue their dreams. Even crummy jobs provide structure within a community, and human beings are social animals.
Thompson suggests possible elements in a “post-work” world:
- Craftsmen and artisans can share work spaces for their own enjoyment and as part of a community – a lovely vision.
- Individuals will assemble a living from a web of part time, short time, bartered, and shared jobs in an “on-demand economy.” This is already happening and won’t always be fun: Working Poor in America.
- A governmental “universal basic income” could ward off despair, though a “handful of workers permanently subsidizing idleness” would lead to “civil ruin.” (Consider Gang Leader For a Day.) The government could create jobs, like the WPA during the Great Depression, to produce tangible products while supporting citizens without crushing initiative.
- Thompson doesn’t mention it, but I wonder about aimless people, especially young men, being recruited to gangs, terrorism, and cults. America doesn’t exist in a vacuum and trends around the world will play in our future.
The next few decades seemed poised to bring substantial change. We’ll need to address symptoms as they erupt, but any attempt to engineer the outcome will fail. Be compassionate, be open to honest data, and take care of your own wherever you can. But if you think you know where we’re going, write a science fiction novel, not a social policy.