The Future of Work
What would you do, if you didn’t have to work? I don’t mean this in the sense that you often hear, that you should persue your dreams and have your passion be your work. Or a scenario in which you suddenly find yourself with a large amount of money. I’m talking about in a situation where, even if you wanted to work, there were no jobs for you to take.
Throughout human civilization humans have had to work throughout the day to sustain themselves. We had to hunt and cook our own food. We had to build our own houses, and create our own clothes. When we were done with those chores, is when we had time to contemplate our own existence. As our societies evolved, we began to worry less about where our next meal comes from, and more about what the future holds. What happens when we die? Will we be remembered? Will our children struggle as we had?
When we finished the walls surrounding our cities, and we felt safe in our beds at night, we were not satisfied there. We began to build monuments, in dedication to both gods, and man. It took around 30,000 men a few decades to build the pyramids at Giza. They were fed, housed, and clothed. Worked primarily when not needed in the fields, and built structures that have existed for thousands of years after the names of the workers have been extinguished forever. Construction on the empire state building began on March 17th 1930, and was dedicated on May 1st, 1931. It took only 14 months to build one of the most iconic structures in America. How fast could we build it today? Ignoring the quagmire of inspections and bureaucracy surrounding such a project, just the construction time alone.
What does this mean for us as a society? The majority of this productivity growth comes in the form technology. The invention and proliferation of computers, robotics, and global telecommunications means it simply takes less humans to do what we used to do. Currently this means we are seeing fewer jobs, especially as businesses continue to consume and consolidate each other. Perhaps if wages increase, we can reverse the trend of two working parent households. But what about beyond that?
Star Trek envisions a society in which there is no money. Yes people still work, but they do so for the good of humanity. Is it possible for our society to go back to a time where individuals had to grow their own food? Or even for that matter, pick our own food? We have tractors which use GPS to plant, harvest, and fertilize our crops, in which the farmer driving the tractors is little more than a formality. Many Trucking companies are currently working on self driving cars, what happens to all those truck drivers when they switch to automated trucks?
The reason income inequality is so high today, is that the gains made by the increases in productivity, are only given to those at the top. But what happens when 3.5 million truck drivers no longer have a job? We have seen these shifts in the past, and new blossoming industries have always been able to absorb the loss of jobs in what is dubbed creative destruction in capitalism. But where could this next frontier come from?
I believe how we deal with this sudden lack of work in our country will be the defining issue of my generations time. In Europe, you see this issue already being faced. The shorter work weeks, and months of vacation time seem so foreign to us, but they have the effect of spreading around the few jobs remaining to as many people as possible. Could we give up our 40 hr work week? Already many in this nation look down on those working part time, when in reality most of those people work part time out of necessity.
How do we take care of those in our society in which jobs just don’t exist? I have some ideas, but I would like to hear yours.