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.

Continue reading

If Your Job Were a Video Game, Would You Play It?

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.

Continue reading