There was a really interesting article published on CNN.com a few weeks ago which asked: Are Jobs Obsolete? It’s a fresh take on our rising unemployment problem, suggesting that maybe the lack of paying jobs really isn’t a problem at all. With technology and productivity both increasing so much lately, we simply don’t need as many man-hours to produce the goods and services we need.
From the article:
And so the president goes on television telling us that the big issue of our time is jobs, jobs, jobs — as if the reason to build high-speed rails and fix bridges is to put people back to work. But it seems to me there’s something backwards in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.
I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks — or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?
We’re living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That’s because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.
Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff — it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.
This is a critical point. We have plenty of wealth, but our system of spreading that wealth throughout the population via jobs is potentially becoming outdated. Maybe we have actually become that productive.
Jobs, as such, are a relatively new concept. People may have always worked, but until the advent of the corporation in the early Renaissance, most people just worked for themselves. They made shoes, plucked chickens, or created value in some way for other people, who then traded or paid for those goods and services. By the late Middle Ages, most of Europe was thriving under this arrangement.
The only ones losing wealth were the aristocracy, who depended on their titles to extract money from those who worked. And so they invented the chartered monopoly. By law, small businesses in most major industries were shut down and people had to work for officially sanctioned corporations instead. From then on, for most of us, working came to mean getting a “job.”
It is refreshing to remember that a “job” is a modern construct. It wasn’t always this way.
The Industrial Age was largely about making those jobs as menial and unskilled as possible. Technologies such as the assembly line were less important for making production faster than for making it cheaper, and laborers more replaceable. Now that we’re in the digital age, we’re using technology the same way: to increase efficiency, lay off more people, and increase corporate profits.
While this is certainly bad for workers and unions, I have to wonder just how truly bad is it for people. Isn’t this what all this technology was for in the first place? The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with “career” be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?
Instead, we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.
The article continues to discuss the politics of all of this, suggesting that there is enough “wealth” to provide shelter, food, clothing, and health care for everyone. It does seem like we are looking at a “new normal” of a structurally-higher level of unemployment. Politics aside, what changes do we need to make as a society to accommodate so many unemployed people? Without enough jobs to spread wealth, how can we best spread the wealth we have so these people can survive?
And, more interestingly, is there a way to incentivize these people to do something “more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful” than the jobs that no longer exists?