The Future of Work


Idling at the coffee house

“At the age of twenty-six, Maarten Troost had been pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock of life by racking up useless graduate degrees and muddling through a series of temp jobs.” Description from The Sex Lives of Cannibals.

Troost has to be every parent’s nightmare of fail-to-launch offspring. After receiving a degree in a subject that could lead to a real job, he “chose not to pursue employment in the field for which I had spent many years acquiring knowledge because… it just didn’t seem the right thing to do” and was too much trouble. To fend off collection agencies he raised cash by subletting his apartment and moving in with his mother for a while, and later became a “minimum wage temp.”

Subsequently he moved to Tarawa, a “heat-blasted sliver of coral [at] the end of the world… for two years” for “no particularly good reason.”

The book ambles much as his life did, in a trendy but mocking tone that may drive you crazy. “I regard idling as a virtue,” he writes.

Does Troost point the way to our future? Troost does get to the Pacific island in his second chapter, but it was the first chapter that got me thinking. As automation replaces human labor, how many people will need to build a life from idling?

It’s not as crazy a concern as it may sound. We’ve heard about robots replacing workers in manufacturing for a long time. But one of the largest occupations in America is driving vehicles, and self-driving vehicles are coming, probably first to commercial use. Another big job category is retail sales, but I can check myself out at Walmart – one employee watching over six registers. Amazon is testing a store where you log in with a phone app as you enter, pick up your items, and walk out. The app keeps track and charges your credit card.

I’m old enough to remember when employees pumped gas, now in most states gas is self-serve, which doesn’t seem odd or sad anymore.

Many white collar jobs are endangered too. For example, algorithms and analytics are replacing well-paid legal professionals.

I read a science fiction story once (can’t recall the title!) where people were required to consume a quota of products and spent their days doing that – only the wealthy had the luxury of employment.

From the end of WWII well into the 1970s, Americans lived through the Great Prosperity. More education, bigger houses, multi-car families, and more consumer goods. We carried that lifestyle on with overtime and two-income families for a while, but things seem to be catching up with America.

Universal Basic Income?
In real life I’ve read an argument that goes something like this: we are all part of a society that creates not makers and takers, but winners and losers: vast wealth at the top based on eliminating jobs. Since we all play a role in society, we all deserve a Universal Basic Income, a sort of Social Security throughout life, a floor to stand on.

Does that sound like utopia or dystopia? I suppose the real difference between the two, on a personal level, comes down to this: are you happy?

How to be happy
There’s some research behind the idea that, once survival is assured, human beings need three things:

  • A sense of being competent at something, be it a job or a vocation;
  • Enough freedom to feel autonomous; and
  • A community to belong to.

I’m retired now and quite happy. I have a lot of nice stuff picked up over the years, but acquiring more has lost its appeal. (Okay – not entirely. I recently bought a small fairy garden sculpture. I smile every time I look at it.) I have “vocations” instead of employment.

I feel like I did my share for society. I worked hard, but I also realize that I was lucky. I’ve listened to a lot of people brag about their accomplishments, but like me they’ve had the luck to be born in a great country, with public schools and highways, surrounded by an exceptional economy, escaping the corruption and strife that drag down many other countries.

The future may not hold the kind of luck I had. It’s possible that the life Maarten Troost writes about awaits more and more Americans, and as a couple generations move through the “end-of work” world, there won’t be affluent parents to mooch from. I don’t want America to become a country full of poor and desperate people – enlightened self-interest should tell the wealthy that they don’t want that either.

As you make your own judgments going forward, be aware of the changes and keep your eyes open. We’re creating a new norm.

BTW – I wondered if that ne’er-do-well Troost is getting rich on his books. I found an on-line calculator that estimates the number of books sold based on the Amazon sales rank. I can’t validate the calculator and can only use today’s rank and published averages for royalties – but just for fun, I tried to estimate Troost’s take. I found three of his books on Amazon in print and digital formats – for a total of about $269 a month or $3,228 a year. Being a slacker is no way to get rich – at least, not for Troost.

4 thoughts on “The Future of Work

  1. The concept of personal property may also be a candidate for the dustbin of history along with gainful employment. Our generation may be the last one to equate possessions with status and, by extension, state of mind. With our present obsession with acquisition most of us are not that far removed from hoarders, who are among the unhappiest of people. I often think of this when I read the latest lament about income inequality. A better metric would be happiness inequality. Not all rich people are happy and not all poor people are unhappy. Ownership is not nearly as important as access. If we don’t have to buy a lot of cargo, we don’t need a lot of money. Boy, will that idea put a jolt into the Dow!

    • I do get the feeling we’re at some sort of a tipping point. Investing looks crazy because companies don’t need more capital to increase production – they don’t need more production so what to do with all that (bubble?) money. Especially in cities, why buy when you can rent anything from a car-ride to clothes for a party? Why have a huge commercial-style kitchen when delivery is easy and quick? (Such a weird trend lately in upscale kitchens – maybe the last gasp of our consumer culture.) Happiness seems a better measure than “he who dies with the most toys wins”

      • People who have a ton of disposable income sure seem happiest when they are disposing of it. It’s that status thing. Believing that you have higher status is one of the biggest perks of wealth, because it is a very visible and widely recognized metric. Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it buys you a pretty good happiness costume.

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