The Future of Work – III When Jobs End

In the past, all the way back to the earliest beginnings of the Industrial Revolution around 1800, older job opportunities that were eliminated by mechanization reemerged as new opportunity in new production jobs created by the revolution. Without the support of company sponsored training or unemployment insurance, these transitions were hard times for the displaced workers. Still, at some point, a worker could find another job in a new production sector. The same has been true for every turn of automation since.

However, it is a common position among futurists that, moving forward through the 21st century, the number of jobs available will begin to dwindle. It may be that large numbers of citizens will not have the opportunity to find another job. As a rule of thumb right now, economists determine that every major shift in the economy creates a job loss of 15% that will not be recovered in the transition. At some point, automation will increase this loss incrementally – never to be recouped.

It is important to dissect “job” from “work.” A job is the result of hiring by an employer wherein the individual hired receives a salary or some form of recompense. Work is the act of investing personal time, energy, and other resources wherein the individual feels justified in one’s behavior and feels personally responsible for one’s contribution; the individual also derives a sense of self worth from doing the work. A job can fulfill an act of work but work has a broader definition that includes the wellbeing of the individual.
The introduction to an article in The Atlantic written by Derek Thompson expands on the difference between jobs and work and shows that although different, the two are permanently entwined:

“The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.

For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.

Youngstown was transformed not only by an economic disruption but also by a psychological and cultural breakdown. Depression, spousal abuse, and suicide all became much more prevalent; the caseload of the area’s mental-health center tripled within a decade. The city built four prisons in the mid-1990s—a rare growth industry. One of the few downtown construction projects of that period was a museum dedicated to the defunct steel industry….”
“….the widespread disappearance of work would usher in a social transformation unlike any we’ve seen. If John Russo1 is right, then saving work is more important than saving any particular job. Industriousness has served as America’s unofficial religion since its founding. The sanctity and preeminence of work lie at the heart of the country’s politics, economics, and social interactions. What might happen if work goes away?”
1 John Russo, Professor of labor studies at Youngstown State University.

The conservative constraints on what constitutes work today, when even government work “is not real work,” is tied to the roots of capitalism and work ethic in American history. Roots bound in hundreds of years of culture suggest that a change in that culture will be resisted just as the transition from slavery to modern civil rights is resisted. It will take generations to restructure the opportunity to work and to establish an adequate financial subsidy. In the case of work, joblessness will require more immediate transition which may not change smoothly if hurried. For example, how hard has it been (and will it be) to redefine Hispanic immigration? There are great grandchildren of undocumented workers living in the US. Whole generations of Hispanics carry an anxiety within themselves: “When will I be found out?”

There will come a moment when a great layoff will occur for which job replacement is not available. In that moment, a new world of work will be born wherein citizens are paid a stipend so that each citizen may continue to work – whether a job definition exists is irrelevant. A society cannot operate except people are allowed expression through work, contribution, and personal gratification. A “job,” on the other hand, is a matter of definition, nothing else.

There is no doubt that the welfare mother who raises her children to be responsible adults is doing valuable work. In the future, this could be considered her job.

Ancient Mariner