Jobsolescence?

26

CNN asks a question that we can expect to hear more and more in the coming years: are jobs obsolete?

The linked article makes a strong case, one that I’ve explored both here and at the Speculist, and which featured in one of our recent World Transformed podcasts. Here’s the summary:

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.

We could, but how are you going to distribute that which is produced by the few remaining workers and the many machines? Do the majority of the population become welfare recipients? Does everybody get the same amount? Do the remaining workers get more, seeing as they still have to work?

These are tough questions and if jobs truly are becoming obsolete we will have to face them.

But it’s not clear to me that jobs are becoming obsolete, at least not any time soon.  Douglas Rushkoff, the guy who wrote  the linked article, apparently still has a job. I’m actually performing my job writing this blog post. And of course, many of you reading this are doing so at work. (Whether that activity is work-related, you all have to figure out for yourselves, of course.)

We established last week that there are some jobs that are not yet ready for automation. And there is growing demand in some unexpected areas, such as speech pathology. But right now it feels as though we’re losing old jobs faster than we’re gaining new ones.

Why?

Automation is eliminating jobs. Machines are doing it. They are fast, efficient, and relentless. Creating jobs is a whole different matter. Creating jobs requires developing new business models, which means identifying market needs — figuring out what is important to people, what they will pay for. It is a fundamentally creative activity — one that machines can’t perform.

It’s the story of John Henry all over again…but there’s a difference. The same technology that is eliminating jobs also connects us and empowers us in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. Maybe what’s becoming obsolete is not jobs per se, but the idea that they are something that you simply find.

Increasingly, perhaps, a job is something that we each have to create. We can’t count on someone else to create one for us. That model is disappearing. We have to carve something out for ourselves, something that the machines won’t immediately grab.

That sounds difficult, maybe even a little dangerous. We’re all comfortable with the idea of “finding” a job. We search for them; we hunt them; we land them. All of these images assume the job already exists.

But to create something new…what does that even mean? Do we all become entrepreneurs? (I think the answer to that question is yes, although many of us will have to learn to be entrepreneurs within existing organizations.) Ultimately, it means we have to find something useful to do, something so useful that others are willing to pay for it.

Difficult, yes. Dangerous, maybe. But also — isn’t it just a little exciting?

UPDATE: Welcome Instapundit readers! While you’re here, don’t miss our Why Did You Go to College? survey.

21 Comments

  1. 2012-04-14 03:37:24

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  2. [...] -Phil at Transparency Revolution It is possible to have an enjoyable life without earning and spending a whole lot of money. If health care and education are the areas where costs are growing, and if their marginal benefits are in doubt, then if you just get your basic needs met and focus on the enjoyment you get from the stuff that is not so expensive, you can do pretty well without a ton of money. [...]

  3. [...] much prefer Phil’s take (HT: Arnold Kling) on jobs to Megan [...]

  4. 2011-09-11 01:17:59

    Are jobs obsolete? Well, maybe so in the coming epoch, but if so, what is all that excess labor going to do, i.e. what are all of those idle people going to do? This whole issue begs the question, does our economy exist to serve us (human beings) or do we exist to serve it? If the answer is the former, we should not design our economy on the basis of Benthemite effciency, but to benefit human beings. Yes, we should provide for our material needs, but equally important to these are the need to feel useful and productive, and to make a contribution in the world. The coming, automated Brave New World makes humans into a commodity to be fed into the maw of the industrial apparatus. I don't call that being human, do you?

  5. [...] jobs obsolete?  It’s an interesting contrast to the President’s notion that the government can [...]

  6. 2011-09-10 20:53:09

    So I should scratch my career plans in a career services office?

  7. 2011-09-10 20:19:37

    There was a finding independent of the tobacco industry by an economist who found himself wondering about the suing states who claimed that medical expenses of cigarette smoking were a severe economic drain. He found that the medical community had found the primary form of premature death from smoking was actually heart failure rather than lung cancer. And most of those tended to be sudden DRT (dead right there) events. Thus, no expensive treatment, no collection of retirement, no Medicare, etc. I'm all for people smoking like chimneys as long as it isn't in my vicinity. A big annoyance for me is the neighbor who goes in his back yard to smoke and the resulting stench wanders in through my bedroom window.

  8. 2011-09-10 19:59:51

    [...] Here we have an excellent article pointing out some of problems we’re discussing here.  Recommended! Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  9. 2011-09-10 19:17:55

    "Creating your own job" is a good way to land in prison, given the massive regulatory maze you have to deal with. There aren't more workers than there is work that needs to be done; there are more workers than there are opportunities to do the work and still turn a profit and/or or stay out of jail.

  10. [...] Instapundit tag I want to discuss….at another time but read it and ponder. This entry was posted in Future, Work by thisworldandothers. Bookmark the [...]

  11. 2011-09-10 18:29:23

    I've been thinking for some time that we face a fundamental problem: There are more workers available than there is work that needs to be done. Phil, above, put it better. We have pretty much everything we need -- at least in this country, and probably in Western Europe and the Anglosphere. Just a few hours ago I saw a chart which indicated that the percentage of working age population in this country who hold jobs has been declining since 2000. This problem is exacerbated if you hold to the view, as I do, that most people consider a basic purpose of government to be to smooth the transition from one economic model to the next, e.g., agricultural price supports, legal protection for industrial, then service unions, etc. Two problems there: First, once government involves itself in the dynamic economy, its prescriptions tend to ossify the structure by attracting interest groups whose primary concern is to get the government to solve its problems; and, second, we seem to have spent pretty much all the money and used up all the borrowing power which might have been available to address the transition problems this time around. Not to worry. Humans are good at two things: Inventing new things that produce chaos; and imposing order on chaos to ensure our survival and continued prosperity. Just don't rely on government to do this job for us.

  12. 2011-09-10 18:19:12

    Perhaps as Adam Smith commented on how Marco Polo described China in almost the same terms as travelers of his time, the United States has “acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.” Of course, he was commenting on the desperate state of the Chinese laborers in that stagnant economy compared the vibrant opportunities available to the English laborer in the growing economy of England of 1776. We’ve built such an overbearing regulatory state that we’ve achieved peak labor? Perhaps the solution is as Reagan did, get out of the way of business and people finding work.

  13. 2011-09-10 17:40:38

    Phil, I've got an actual plan I'm pushing: http://biggovernment.com/mwarstler/2011/01/04/guaranteed-income-the-christian-solution-to-our-economy/ Wherein: 1. everyone gets a Guaranteed Income from the govt in a Paypal style acct - every week they get a deposit. 2. everyone is auctioned Ebay style starting at $40 per week. And they keep their GI + 50% what gets bid, the gvt. keeps the other 50%. Make no mistake, this is the Tea Party's world. EVERYONE will work. But we will admit that everyone isn't able to earn enough to take care of themselves. What matters is ROI, even at the low end, so when you can hire a Full Time childcare for $120 per week, and mommy can go back to school, get a real job, etc. It's great for all involved.

  14. 2011-09-10 17:35:07

    Phil, the root of the problem here can be found in a lie ... a lie that has been embedded into the conventional wisdom for almost a century. I refer to it as the Biggest Lie of All: All you need to do is show up for work; we have experts who have the answers to your housing needs, your health care needs, your financial needs … no need to plan for your future or actively manage your career, since we can do a better job than you can; just trust us to solve those problems FOR you. All my fifty-plus years (and many before that), we have been told this lie, in one form or another, by our economic, political and cultural elites. We have been told that others will take care of our challenges FOR us ... and that we can't do it better than they can ... so why bother? Just let us "help". As a result of our belief in this lie, we have made the notion that one should be able to work at the same job, doing much the same thing, from school until retirement ... all the while getting more and more as compensation and benefit ... part of our conventional wisdom. And in turn, millions have not kept their heads in the game -- not working to keep their options open and/or prepare for hard times, by managing their careers and finances in ways that maintain their flexibility to respond to changing socio-economic conditions. They are at the tender mercies of the few at the top, and have to hope that they do right by the "little guy". Those at the top AREN'T getting it right, though ... that is becoming more and more evident. What is not so evident, however, is that there was never any chance they could get it right for EACH and EVERY one of us, regardless of the purity of their intent! The idea that a few experts in our government can manage myriad details of 300 million lifetimes from the top down, effectively and efficiently, makes going to the moon -- a task that took tens of billions of dollars, tens of millions of man-hours, and tens of thousands of technical experts to put TWELVE men on the moon for a FEW DAYS each time -- look, by comparison, like a mere exercise in LEGO(TM) assembly. But what makes it impossible, is that a government that honors equal protection under the law and the protection of our civil liberties lacks the precision and insight to deal with every aspect of the problems we face. It can't adequately discriminate between the truly needy and the slacker ... and it can't deal with the highly-individualized behavioral/educational/ethical choices that impact our finances and productivity. Effectively, the experts of government have only two tools in their tool box ... a bag of money, and a set of handcuffs. But because of the Biggest Lie of All, we have been led to believe that the "powerful" have the omniscience to solve our problems FOR us and save us from ourselves with only these tools. What we should have been, and still be, doing ... and some of us have ... is instead of subordinating our careers and finances to the "wisdom" of our Best and Brightest, we take your advice at the end of this article, and think like businessmen ourselves ... actively managing career and finances to optimize our value to the marketplace, and building support mechanisms to help us deal with hard times (because unlike the officers of a corporation, we can't just walk away from a failure to support ourselves). This is the entrepreneurial thinking you refer to above ... and as you parenthetically state, it is not limited to the self-employed. Even employees (like myself) need to think like businessmen -- even to the point of taking our services to a better employer, or place to live, if the earning potential, finances, and opportunities to enhance one's market value are greater than where we're at presently. It means steering your education into a balance between how much you want to love your work, and how well you want to eat (realizing that the tasks you love might not have to involve full-time employment, but you need something to pay the grocery bill). It means putting saving up an emergency fund, then saving for retirement, and buying health insurance at a higher priority in budgeting than iPhones and Starbucks ... or getting into a McMansion in the right neighborhood, instead of renting until home ownership is a viable option (which for some people in mobile careers, may be "never"). It means not looking for something for nothing, or to have others take from your fellow entrepreneurs in order to give you "what you deserve" ... lest you have what you have advocated doing to others, be done to you later. It means turning a listening ear to those with expertise -- while retaining the decision-making authority, and control of resources, for yourself when it comes to the choice of implementing what the experts say. It basically means taking responsibility for you and yours, instead of outsourcing it to a few Best and Brightest ... who too often reveal themselves, once the decisions are made and the consequences become evident, to be (regardless of their credentials or resume) Dim Bulbs.

  15. 2011-09-10 17:27:52

    I do a bit of a mental halt-step when I hear "...I lost my job..." from the person being interviewed on the TV. The job belongs to the employer not the employee.

  16. 2011-09-10 17:13:51

    Professionals already do this - it's called a "career". The problem is many people don't distinguish between transferable domain expertise and nontransferable skills at working inside a big bureaucracy. Being a good free agent means focusing on your value as a domain expert - and keeping up with your domain - and not your "value" as a cog in a bureaucratic machine. After all, bureaucracy is overhead, and overhead is being ruthlessly slashed as it can be easily automated. That said, one problem that will remain is few people are good salespeople, and those who are good salespeople are rarely good with serious domains outside sales. So, will we become a world of consultancies? (Serious question, and some parts of the economy already resemble this.)

  17. 2011-09-10 16:30:30

    Gee, when did I hear this argument before? During the Carter administration. Why then? What's the same between now and 1979? We have a leftist Democrat in the White House and an economy spiraling out of control. Just the time for "the economy is completely different so the old rules don't apply" story. Forget it. We have an economy reacting in exactly the way economies always react to socialist policies. Get rid of the socialists and the economy will boom again.

  18. 2011-09-10 15:46:22

    Its amazing how the world's oldest jobs still remain viable. Prostituition, arms trade, leg breaking, gambling, gun for hire seem never to go out of style. Oddly now more than ever it seems more lucrative.

  19. 2011-09-10 15:44:01

    I've been saying for a while that our approach to long term joblessness is useless. Instead of just giving unemployment benefits, we need to retrofit out approach to help the long term unemployed create their own jobs. In place of benefits, the long term unemployed are given the opportunity to access an entrepreneur bank that includes money coming from a public private partnership fund which gives individuals money to start their own business in return for 50% of the companies started from said fund. Crazy but its a start and a damn well better option that giving the long term unemployed no strings attached benefits.

  20. 2011-09-10 15:34:13

    No one is owed a living. It takes work. Early in my life, before I had experience and knowledge in IT and as a manager I was a computer operator, who also worked part time as a 7-11 clerk (making almost as much s I made as a soldier), and then as a security guard (making more than I made as a soldier). Two jobs was my way of life and I embraced it so I could have a little more money, a nicer apartment and eat well. I'm a lot luckier now - I have a career in IT, which is still a growth industry and I make a good living. But if I didn't have it I'd do whatever I needed to do. There are only a few necessities of life: food and shelter. Everything else is a "bene". When people remember that, and decide that there is absolutely no job "beneath" then maybe they'll take the jobs that are available and not worry about their 3 story houses, 3 cars, private schools, and start living where they can afford to live. I did it, I'd do it again if I had to.

  21. 2011-09-10 15:26:46

    That argument was made (and rejected at trial) by the cigarette makers, who actually had statistics showing that for all the medical costs associated with their products, the cost savings produced by reduced life expectancy more than (like 2-3 times) offset them. The same argument could be made by any industry that reduces life expectancy... with justification.

  22. 2011-09-10 15:13:40

    Well, aren't we already seeing the results of having a massive unemployed underclass maintain by government handouts? What are the recent London riots but a symptom of masses of people who have nothing better to do for amusement than break and steal stuff? The scariest aspect is that the problem isn't so much lack of jobs as an excess of people. Especially those capable only of unskilled manual labor. When an increasing portion of the population is maintained cradle to grave by taxpayer funds, at what point does our burgeoning regulatory regime begin to allocate reproductive rights, with all of the horrors of bureaucrats picking winners and losers for the very right to exist? At the other end of the spectrum is the Logan's Run meets Soylent Green scenario. (The book rather than the movie that offered almost no explanation of how things got that way.) If a major portion of the younger portion of the populace feels their future has been stolen through the entitlements given to boomers, how long before they decide to take matters into their own hands by forcibly euthanizing elderly offenders who never had children and thus someone to defend them, and slowly but surely reducing the flow of resources to the retirees. It may seem outlandish but I feel an increasing anxiety about how all of this plays out. Something has to break somewhere when you've committed all of the money in the world, literally, to a small group of non-producers. Somewhere in France there is a bureaucrat who took note of the thousands of nursing home residents killed by an August heat wave a few years ago. In a very short period there were significant resource freed up by the passing of those elderly people. Surely someone added up the numbers and went 'Hmmm.'

  23. 2011-09-10 15:04:06

    Any deviation from an average of dirt poverty and early death is an aberration, so pissing away the industrial/business model that built it without building a replacement is breathtakingly stupid. Widespread self-employment is unable to sustain an industrial economy for a number of reasons: specialization, capital, mobility, and cash flow. A few people are pretty good at everything: the core skill, marketing, networking, taxes and cash flow mgt. Most people suck at one or more of them. Very few people have personal capital assets unencumbered by debt, and certainly not enough to be competitive with an overseas factory. If you take out a loan for your capital, you have to pay monthly. Most people and businesses take 30-90 days to pay. It takes a big book of business to cover that cash flow. Eventually you run short and don't pay your taxes and/or your loan and lose your capital. If business dries up in one area, unless you are totally mobile (no house, no apt, no bldg lease), it costs a lot a lot of cash to move to another area, one without your network, and by the way you don't have any cash. If you have a piece of land that feeds you, you can't leave the dried up area and self-employment rapidly morphs into a hardscrabble scratch for enough calories to cover the work that pays the property tax, and welcome back to the normal human condition. Some kind of Distributionist scheme may work elsewhere, but Americans love their socialist epithet more than the welfare of their fellows and would sooner see everyone reduced to poverty than sleep at night knowing someone was getting something he didn't work for, even if there was enough for everyone.

  24. 2011-09-10 14:54:48

    Government regulations will put a stop to individuals starting their own businesses. You have to have a license, a lawyer, and an accountant to open a lemonade stand. Who wants to end up with a big IRS fine, a criminal record, and possibly in the pokey for trying to better yourself? Hell, you don't even own your own property. The EPA can designate your 25th floor Manhattan condo a "wetland". The DNA can declare that your balcony is the habitat of an endangered bedbug. I see lots of change but very little hope. I blame Dick Obama voters.

  25. 2011-09-10 14:14:19

    Hence the game Manopoly. It is also why we call those who try and get on the public docket "rent seekers". I did stimulate a plumper this week to fix a broken pipe. We will also, I think, always pay our story tellers, but just how is influx like everything else.

  26. 2011-09-08 18:04:57

    Creating our own jobs is wayyy more the norm. Consider - my paternal grandfather left school after 7th grade in Ypsilati Michigan. His father had a plan to sharecrop a farm in southern Texas. Great grandpa died that summer in a farming accident (technically died from an infection caused by a mule powered plow falling on him and cutting his leg) . Grandpa returned to Ann Arbor, Michigan with his mother, brothers and father's body. Then he went looking for work. First job - sweeping up the football stadium in Ann Arbor. It was 1923, he was 12, and when he wasn't sweeping up there, he was at home helping the brothers convert the family home into a boarding house. 11 years of working here and there and joining the Army, he met grandma. She was living on her family farm in Illinois (he was stationed at Fort Sheridan) with parents and her sister. After the marriage, grandpa worked on his in-laws farm. ANd on other farms in the area. He cleared snow in the winter. He worked with horses, - bought and sold afew for profit - but it was the 30's and when a friend of his wife's cousin offered to get him into the union - they moved into Chicago city center and he had a job for the next 38 years (he missed WW2 by 1 day) that was followed by retirement. (When they moved back to my grandmother's family farm, long since leased to a farmer for the filed and tenants for the house, where he spent his retirement working on the house and around the farm. In 1938 my father was born and when he graduated college (yes he was 1st) in 1960, he went onto active duty in the Army for two+ years and when he got out he had a seasonal job at the post office, and then he went to work for Sears. Where he had a job for the next 36 years followed by retirement. I came of age thinking that somehow that would be my fate too. I chose the Air Force , but it would be college, AIr Force and then a job until I didn't need it anymore. Didn't happen - doesn't seem likely to happen. Instead , my era seems much more likely to be like my great grandparents' and earlier ancestors. I work where and when I can. Usually not that far from home, doing whatever I can find. I'd love to have the opportunity of the luxury of finding a job, working hard, and just having it "forever." Where is that? Walmart? (the modern day Sears) Gov't work? I don't know where or what that would be. ANd I'm not even talking about a job with defined benefit pension and respectability. No - the industrial era style employment was the historical aberration - almost two generations in my family. And if I had been thinking ahead I would have had the leasehold farmer teach me how to work the farm. (grandma will be 98 a few weeks after her tenant harvests the beans this Fall. the house burned- she lives with my aunt a couple of hours away.) (Or I would have got my maternal grandfather to get me into the electrician union, but don't even get me started on that story)

5 Trackbacks

  1. By Jobsolescence. | This World and Others on September 10, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    [...] Instapundit tag I want to discuss….at another time but read it and ponder. This entry was posted in Future, Work by thisworldandothers. Bookmark the [...]

  2. By Jobsolescence | The End of Work on September 10, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    [...] Here we have an excellent article pointing out some of problems we’re discussing here.  Recommended! Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  3. By A bit of reading « Summa minutiae on September 11, 2011 at 1:01 am

    [...] jobs obsolete?  It’s an interesting contrast to the President’s notion that the government can [...]

  4. By A refreshing look at jobs | Our Dinner Table on September 13, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    [...] much prefer Phil’s take (HT: Arnold Kling) on jobs to Megan [...]

  5. By Towards a New Economy « Contrarian Moderate on September 15, 2011 at 11:47 am

    [...] -Phil at Transparency Revolution It is possible to have an enjoyable life without earning and spending a whole lot of money. If health care and education are the areas where costs are growing, and if their marginal benefits are in doubt, then if you just get your basic needs met and focus on the enjoyment you get from the stuff that is not so expensive, you can do pretty well without a ton of money. [...]

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