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Derek Thompson’s World Without Work.

A few weekends ago, I had my haircut with my neighborhood barber. One of the many things discussed was the fact I was reading this very interesting article a guy named Derek Thompson wrote for the Atlantic called A World Without Work. I gave my barber the elevator pitch how Thompson thinks that we might really see the day that many jobs will vanish thanks to such new technology as self-driving cars. “I can see that, “he told me, “Why do you think I got into this?” I couldn’t argue with him there and, in fact, af after reading the entire piece, “A World Without Work” is far more complicated than my quick summary provided.

Mr. Thompson correctly writes that, for centuries, we have been told that inventions from the spinning-jenny to the automobile would throw many people out of work. So far, that hasn’t happened. Now, Thompson suggests that the moment has arrived; “But the possibilities seem significant enough_ and the consequences disruptive enough, that we owe it to ourselves to start thinking about what society could look like without universal work, in an effort to begin nudging it toward the better outcomes and away from the worse ones. (Work, pg. 13)”  There are three potential futures for workers, in his opinion, which he calls consumption, communal creativity, and contingency,  Reading this, I get the impression from him that, no matter which of the three becomes real, most people will not like it.

I agree with his comment that the necessity of salaried jobs can prevent many from seeking activities they enjoy. So does raising children, helping aging parents, the lack of money, bills, life, et cetera.  There are also many with full-time jobs doing things they truly seem to enjoy; such as being, in my opinion, a writer for a national publication.  It would be heaven to be part of an idle class if it means having an income of $145,000 a year, full medical coverage, access to tuition free higher education, and the freedom to do whatever you want. Don’t we all? The reality is that, in a world where full-time jobs vanish due to technology, most people will struggle to get by or fall through the cracks, like many are today. Self-actualization is always sacrificed to paying utilities and fending off hunger.

Thompson is right on target when he writes about what the jobless do with their leisure..and it’s not building homes for Habitat for Humanity. There are in fact studies that show more stress, depression, and just more hours watching television, among the unemployed and the longer they don’t have a job the more difficult it gets landing another one. What I find interesting is his study on the spread of non-working men and underemployed youth . “Among men, the decline began earlier: the share of prime-age men who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since the late 1970s, and has increased as much throughout the recovery…All in all, about one in six prime-age men today are either unemployed or out of the workplace altogether (Work, pg. 9).” It seems that one explanation is that technical change has helped eliminate many jobs that men have done in the past. Would my Father find a full-time welding job today I wonder? With the projected rate of technological change, such as self-driving cars, more jobs usually occupied by men will be further eliminated.

As for millennials graduating from college, yes, they are struggling to get a job with their degrees.  Many other articles have already pointed that trend out.  It hasn’t just been the youth that are underemployed. Many Generation Xers, including myself, have advanced degrees that are employed in positions that historically don’t need one and let’s not forget older American who, having been laid off or unemployed for so long they settle for a job with less pay, and education, than what their previous job required.  Ironically, at the same time, people are now being encouraged to pursue a higher education, only to find the jobs they studied for aren’t out there. How many men and women with advanced degrees will be satisfied with being underemployed?

In the piece Thompson went to Ohio to see examples of how people adapt to underemployment. While I was not really enthused about the industrial shop he visited in Columbus (an example in communal creativity), his interview of a middle-aged woman in Youngstown hit close to home. She went back to school to earn two Master’s Degrees and now works part-time as a hostess at a café,  She tried getting a job teaching at a university but couldn’t find a full-time position.(Work, pg. 24). Reading that paragraph, I truly sympathized with her situation, and it does seem to me well, precarious.  He quotes Youngstown State University professor John Russo in saying that he sees Youngstown as, “the leading edge of a larger trend towards the development of what he calls the ‘precariat’-a working class that swings from task to task in order to make ends meet and suffers a loss of labor rights, bargaining rights, and job security (Work, pg. 23).”  Let’s be honest, this has been happening not just in Youngstown over the past four decades, and technological innovations played only a part of this phenomenon.

In fact, more people are pursuing higher education than ever before, as he writes, “…the real wages of recent college graduates have fallen by 7.7 percent since 2000. In the bigger picture, the job market appears to be requiring more and more preparation for a lower and lower starting wage. The distorting effect of the Great Recession should make us cautious about over-interpreting these trends, but most began before the recession, and they do not seem to speak encouragingly about the future of work (Work, page 9).” These are facts that many Americans are only too aware of.

When you combine the vision of the future pictured by Thompson with some of the scenarios shown by Thomas Picketty in his book Capital in the 21st Century, it leaves a lot to be desired.  “In the twenty-first century it is possible to be both a supermanager and a “medium rentier”: the new meritocratic order encourages this sort of thing, probably to the detriment of low-and medium wage workers, especially those who own only a tiny amount of property, if any. (Capital, pg. 378).”  According to the Webster’s New World Dictionary, a rentier is a person who has a fixed income such as lands, bonds, and the like.  That in itself isn’t a bad thing (The Roosevelts, for example, had incomes derived in part from such sources), and not only the very wealthy had such incomes.  It’s just that, thanks to the Great Depression, two World Wars, and such things as income and estate taxes, it played a far smaller role by 1950. What you earned from your job mattered more than money that earned interest, and those that didn’t have the latter could feel they can get ahead by pursuing the former.  In the quote mentioned above, Piketty shows that the past is apparently reasserting itself.

Piketty’s book looks at what is happening right now with the reemergence of capital and the distribution of wealth in society as it once existed before World War I (think of Great Britain or France in 1913).  “What, then, gives us the vague sense that social inequality today is different from social inequality in the age of Balzac and Austen? (Capital, pg. 116).”  Add what Thompson writes to the mix on jobs evaporating due to technology and you have a view of the future that only a few sections of the population would benefit.

Piketty’s call for modernizing the Social State (a la France and Sweden) is commendable and may just happen; in a place like Canada. As for all of us in the United States, the odds against such a thing taking place here are much higher. As shown in the past four decades ideas like a real social safety net financed by an annual tax on capital and progressive income taxes trigger mass hysteria in segments of our voting population.

Thompson also feels that the government must play a far more significant role to address the new situation; by implementing a “universal basic income” though he correctly admits that “the politics of universal income in a world without universal work would be daunting. The rich could say, with some accuracy, that their hard work was subsidizing the idleness of millions of ‘takers’ (Work, pg. 29),“ something that’s been raised since Ronald Regan’s Welfare Queen comments 35 years ago. However, Thompson’s suggestion of a modern WPA is commendable, and not the first time something like this has been suggested in the past decade.

Will a world without “work” mean that a creative, or simply monied, elite obtain the maximum benefits of technology which the vast precariate can only dream of joining? Will our future social structure be less like America in 1913 and more like Imperial Russia that same year; an incredibly wealthy elite, a dazzling cultural scene, a semblance of a professional class in a few large cities, and the vast majority of the people a permanent underclass whose emotions sway from despair to anger? Is that what we want?

Nobody can predict the future, and even Derek Thompson agrees.  He’s just pointing out some sign posts pointing towards a possible future.   However, can we really have an idea what the near future will be like for us who need to retire and those in high school getting ready to spend a lot of money on a sheet of paper?  Can there be something better?  Read the article and understand it for yourself.

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