The Future of Work, or Does Work have a Future?

The last eight years have been tough on many economies in the world, with depression in some (Greece), stagnation in others (most of the Euro Zone and Japan), a painfully slow recovery here in the U.S., and collapsed expectations elsewhere (Brazil.)  The picture is not one of univeral gloom (India as one counter-example),  but especially in advanced economies there has been a persistently high rate of unemployment, especially among the young.  If the French economy is an example of where advanced economies are headed  or where they are stuck, then they are in trouble. In France the rate of unemployment for the young (under 25 and desiring employment) is over 23% (Eurostat: EU Labor Force Survey, April 30, 2016) and has been in that neighborhood for years. The rate in Spain in February 2016 was an unbelievable 45.3%. (Statista: Youth Unemployment Rate in EU Member States as of February 2016 (seasonally adjusted.) Even in the US the rate of unemployment for workers without advanced education or other credentials is depressingly high and shows few signs of improving dramatically.  Of course, these troubles coupled with troubles elewhere, especially in the Middle East, have led to the rise of political extremism, often with a promise to return (you name the country) to the way life used to be.  To me, all these promises (from whatever side of the political spectrum) range from the wildly optimisitc to the delusionary.  What if we can’t go back?

The cheerful answer to that question comes from many economists, represented nicely by the aptly-named magazine, The Economist.  Sure,  old jobs disappear, but new ones will replace them. Blacksmiths give way to auto mechanics who in turn partly give way to computer software engineers who design the programs that increasingly run our automobiles.  New jobs will arise to replace the old, though with new and often more advanced qualifications needed for the work.  In the long run, a new but temporary equilibrium will be established, with a more formally credentialled work force equipped to contribute to the brave new world. Unfortunately, there are several problems with this rosy view.   The long run might be very long indeed, especially if you are  a middle-aged worker with a particular range of job skills that is no longer in demand.  Even if you retrain, the long run might not include you.  And the logic of automation is such that fewer workers (software engineers) will be needed to perform the same functions once performed by many workers (automobile mechanics).  In this country at least there are also large numbers of minimally qualified workers, often wthout even a high school degree, who have at best a tangential relationship to this economy or for that matter this society. Many are frequently unemployed, in and out of jail, and struggling with drug addiction or mental health issues.  It is hard to know what place the brave new world has for them.

Not everyone is likely to qualify for a place or at least a comfortable place in this new world. Even for those with advanced credentials there are few guarantees.  Whereas automation started as a way to replace physical labor, it now increasing focuses on the office and on activities such as billing and various kinds of document processing that was once handled by humans.  (See Simon Head’s Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans). Tax preparation and various accounting functions can now often be  done by software.  The entire field of graphic arts and communications has been transformed by computerization and many jobs in the field–such as video or graphic production of promotion material–have disappeared. ( One of my brothers ran a small company in that field and saw the field transformed and shrunk by computer graphics.)  I have seen arguments that ensuring everyone has a higher level of training will inevitably raise the standard of living in a certain area.  That sounds wonderful, but is it true?   Let’s take a town in West Virginia where there are bascially no jobs becuase the coal mine has shut down and let us ensure that every adult there obtains the equivalent of an associate’s degree from a local community college.  What happens to that town?  I’ll let you guess.

This blog is dedicated to the belief that work is important for people’s dignity and sense of purpose and that work itself should be an area where individuals are allowed to excercise professional judgement and discretion. I also believe that judgement cannot ultimately be automated, though there a lot of very smart people out there betting a lot of money  on the other team. But I also know that we are just at the very beginning of the age of computers and that none of us knows where this age is headed.  Could we end up in a world where the vast majority are unemployed or significantly underemployed, where diversion on top of diversion holds our attention, and where demagogues hold sway over restless and angry mobs?  Just asking the question.


The Future of Work, or Does Work have a Future?

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