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