The long, slow fade of work as we know it

work as we know it

Photo: JJ

You may be a buggy whip. Actually, you may be the horse.

Did you know that with the advent of the industrial revolution the population of horses in this country declined over 90 percent during the first half of the 20th century? Victims of a machine age that overwhelmed their productive capacity.

In a few short years, you, as a means of production, may be hopelessly outmoded. Replaced by a device, or artificial intelligence, or something not even invented yet.

We are in the early phases of incredible economic disruption brought on by advances in computer technology, software, and telecommunications. We sometimes refer to this phenomenon as globalization, giving it a somewhat otherworldly, distant feel. But its consequences are as acute to you and your neighbor as they are to those large, outsourcing conglomerates we like to lambast.

The downside is that work as we know it, along with its attendant social, legal, and political tenets, is slowly disintegrating around us. The upside, for those able to see through the fog, is a return to a level of independence and self-reliance not seen for over 150 years.

This is the premise of a fascinating article by Derek Thompson titled, “A World Without Work,” published in the current edition of The Atlantic.

Technology, says Thompson, is exerting downward pressure on the value and availability of work – echoing the Luddites of the early 1800s who destroyed machines they thought were taking away their jobs.

Wages are stagnant or falling, and full-time jobs are declining, creating a new normal, he says, “where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society.”

Beginning in the 1980s, wages, as a percentage of gross domestic product, began falling. Thompson cites a University of Chicago study that estimates half of this decline is a result of workers being replaced by computers and software.

More and more men in their prime earning years (from 25 to 54) are not working – either unemployed or out of the work force – totaling about one in six of all prime-age male earners.

Add to this figure those who are underemployed and you begin to understand what Thompson refers to as “the spreading rot in the American workforce.”

“In 2013,” he says, “Oxford University researchers forecast that machines might be able to perform half of all U.S. jobs in the next two decades.”

Because this disruption is so new and happening so quickly, no one is quite sure how it will unfold. In the near term entrenched interests and modern-day Luddites will continue to wail, while workers and consumers hope for the best.

Thompson imagines three complementary possibilities emerging as traditional job opportunities decline – an increased devotion to leisure, newly formed creative communities, and an expansion of the informal gig economy.

There’s a bit of a utopian edge to the “post-workist” school of thought, with “the end of wage labor [allowing] for a golden age of well-being.” Most people find meaning in their work, and, when not working, report their sense of well-being declines.

According to one study the majority of men spend their leisure time in passive activities such as watching TV or sleeping. With the advent of the Internet, social media, and even gaming, the opportunity arrises to turn passive leisure into more active pursuits.

Still, says Thompson, “it’s hard to imagine that leisure could ever entirely fill the vacuum of accomplishment left by the demise of labor.” It is through work, after all, that we experience a sense of purpose.

As full-time work diminishes for an increasing share of the labor force, many see a return to our artisanal roots. Thompson cites Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard University, who “sees the next wave of automation returning us to an age of craftsmanship and artistry.”

Consider the creative outlets provided by automated machinery, 3-D printing, and computer aided design. And by websites such as Etsy for crafts, YouTube for videos, and WordPress for blogging. According to Thompson:

The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests – to live as cultural producers. Such activities offer virtues that many organizational psychologists consider central to satisfaction at work: independence, the chance to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose.

Throughout the piece, Thompson returns again and again to Youngstown, Ohio, that shell of a city that once was at the heart of US industrial might. Almost overnight it went from economic powerhouse to economic basket case when Youngstown Sheet and Tube shut its doors in 1977.

Everyone and everything suffered. Businesses closed, the population declined, and, for those who remained, the malignant psychological effects exploded.

Eventually, though, whether through dogged determination or sheer exhaustion in the face of unrelenting hardship, they figured out ways to get by. Some hold several part-time jobs, others pick up a task here and a project there.

John Russo, a professor of labor studies at Youngstown State University, sees the town as the leading edge of a larger phenomenon in which the working class moves from task to task in order to make ends meet – what he calls the “precariat.”

We see the effects playing out on a larger scale with the rise of contract, temporary, and freelance work. Indeed, a 2014 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk found that more than 53 million Americans were engaged in some form of freelance work, representing 34 percent of the US workforce.

Sometimes referred to as the “gig economy,” these changes in the employment contract are causing anxiety and opportunity for all concerned.

Uber, the international transportation network company that allows you to hail a cab, private car, or rideshare from your private phone, provides a good example.

With thousands of workers who migrate on and off duty, essentially working for themselves using Uber as a pointer to their next payday, the company is upending our traditional notion of what it means to have a “job.”

Traditional taxi companies are in an uproar claiming encroachment on their “protected” turf. And governmental entities are clamping down on all manner of infringements of entrenched labor and commerce regulations.

Meanwhile, consumers are delighted with the improved availability and service, while the drivers see it as an opportunity to put money in their pocket and food on the table in an industry that is otherwise locked tight.

Likewise, Airbnb, the company that provides a platform for consumers to rent lodging in the homes of local hosts around the world, creates opportunities for homeowners to put spare capacity to productive use, and headaches for the hospitality industry and government regulators.

When you consider active leisure, creative pursuits, and contingency work arrangements, it’s not necessarily true that employment and unemployment are an either/or proposition. Rather, they are opposite ends of a long spectrum of work arrangements.

“As late as the 19th century,” Thompson explains, “the modern concept of ‘unemployment’ didn’t exist in the United States.” Most lived on farms or worked as artisans, and all depended on home industry to fill in the gaps. Perhaps what we are seeing evolve in today’s labor market is a return to the episodic work of the mid-19th century.

The disruption caused by this change to basic work relationships is in its early stages and will likely continue for several decades until we begin to come to terms with the transition. It’s not easy to figure out your place in such an evolving ecosystem of work when so many laws and vested interests are in place to lubricate the old economy.

Once realized, according to Thompson, these changes reflect “the forgotten norms of the mid-19th century – the artisan middle class, the primacy of local communities, and the unfamiliarity with widespread joblessness.”

To these I would add industriousness, resourcefulness, and integrity.

For some time now this column has advocated the primacy of relationships, of mastery, and of meaning – especially as it relates to one’s work. The changing world of work as we know it described in Thompson’s article, while disruptive, might also lead us back to our roots and natural rhythms in terms of our productive capabilities.

The advances in modern technology that have brought us this far need not return us to the farm, or the blacksmith shop, or to home industry. Unless, of course, we choose to go there.

The economies of scale enjoyed by the world’s largest conglomerates will continue to exist, as will they. But our working relationship with them will almost assuredly be altered.

Governments will need to adapt their laws, while both we, and the businesses we work for, will need to adapt our expectations.

We stand to gain much more than we loose, however. And, with the advantages derived from modern technology, rather than being the horse, perhaps we can morph into a thoroughbred – known for our speed, agility, and spirit.


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