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Are We Entering a Post-Work World?

What are we to do with all of these cheap humans? In a 10,000 word cover story for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson envisions a post-work future where technology and capital has largely displaced labor. Joblessness is already a slow-moving vice on the poor and lower-middle class. Only 68 percent of men ages 30 to 45 with a high school diploma were working as of 2013, and their earnings have not kept up with the growth of the economy. Thompson looks at these figures as well as the pace of today’s automation and wonders whether the decline of manufacturing was simply a harbinger of things to come.

Charles Murray, Robert Putnam, and Andrew Cherlin all point to a cultural and economic breakdown birthed in the 1970s amid changing economies and social mores. Today, a growing portion of less-well-off communities have become shattered vessels leached of opportunity and industriousness, marked by closed factories and broken families. The working class is in a perilous state, but it’s the middle class that’s now at risk of becoming a “museum exhibit.”

The force of automation is such that nearly half of today’s occupations are believed by some to be prone to displacement. Just as steam power rendered muscle power redundant, computers are increasingly better equipped to take on solidly middle class jobs that depend on computation or rote mental tasks, such as accounting. All else being equal—which they are not, and we will return to—current trends are placing a growing share of Americans on the path to forced free time.

Thompson considers three scenarios for how we may respond to a lack of work: leisure, which many choose in practice; productivity, which only a motivated subset pursue; and to fight, which is perhaps the most worrisome outcome and the one least considered by Thompson and others of this genre.

These scenarios portray a world of prosperity with very little work. Automation will have displaced tens of millions of jobs, with a small subset being most hurt and many of the rest simply struggling with underemployment. Jobs will be lost with few to replace them.

“A nimble economy is our best hope for work in the coming machine age.”

Many will struggle to demonstrate their worth to others and, more importantly, to themselves. All of us will still enjoy a growing economy, but its gains will primarily accrue to the owners of capital—that is, the machine’s owners—and arrive to most of us in the form of cheaper goods and services. There will be mass prosperity without mass flourishing.

Thompson sees work as giving people purpose through their accomplishments. Indeed, there’s something intrinsically fulfilling about labor itself. We work to create outputs in order to receive an income, yes, but we also endeavor to find meaning in vocations. “Most people want to work,” he argues, “and are miserable when they cannot.” There’s also something about work that lends itself to social value; we discover where we are on the pecking order.

Yet what’s more interesting about Thompson’s musings are how we may create new opportunities in this post-work future. For instance, technology seems to be democratizing production and creativity. A new range of post-work arrangements is emerging, often without the need for formal organization. And a rising share of workers are choosing the path of entrepreneurship out of necessity.

Thompson’s essay begs a few questions: Are we talking about the “end of work” or simply the end of the working class? Does work mean something more than formal employment? Is replacing work different than replacing jobs?

Official statistics are no help here. Thompson argues that we are seeing the rise of the sharing economy in firms such as Uber and AirBnB, which may help answer some questions about the shape that work and the working class will take in the coming years. Yet as Adam Ozimek has pointed out, “The share of the workforce reporting they are unincorporated self-employed is declining and lower than at any point in the last 70 years.” Moreover, the share of multiple job workers is at a 20-year low, suggesting that the notion of a “gig economy” has yet to be realized.

Time will tell whether the sharing economy points to a future of stable, informal work. Thompson acknowledges that we see Uber’s influence everywhere but in the workforce statistics. Yet the notion of informally marketing and trading our time through our smartphones is a paradigm too important to dismiss. It’s also a market too complex and new to assess with any degree of confidence just yet. We are applying 20th century measures to a 21st century economy. Reality is bound to become a rounding error.

Creative destruction is a constant in America, even in the face of Washington’s best efforts to minimize it. Our economy will eventually adjust to whatever shape automation takes in the coming years. Thompson’s error is in presuming too little of entrepreneurs as well as future wants and needs. But “eventually” is the key word; timing is everything.

Thompson journeys from today to tomorrow with little reflection on the time in between. He is not alone. Critics of the “end of work” thesis neglect to consider how long it will take for our labor force to adjust to automation. “Machine age” proponents meanwhile ignore the numerous variables affecting this supposedly relentless path toward the robot takeover.

“The trajectory of technological progress is not inevitable,” says the MIT Technology Review. It depends on choices by consumers, companies, and, most of all, governments about what sort of future we want.

The question we should be asking is: What prevents the economy from pivoting quickly to the future? Embrace technological progress and the sort of adjustments that will inevitably come in the labor market—and do so quickly. This “rip the band-aid off” approach to creative destruction is far better than simply standing around or standing our ground in the face of change.

Public policy should focus on tearing down barriers to people adjusting to new technologies rather than simply worrying about machines. Unfortunately, that is not the sort of economy we have today nor is it the flavor of policy proposed by many of technology’s critics. Thompson gets it mostly right when he talks about making it easier to start small-scale businesses or encouraging a national online marketplace of work.

We want a nimble economy. That is our best hope for work in the coming machine age.

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