The Dejobbing of Society and What to Do About It

The synthesis of my interviews, readings, and thoughts on the subject.

Posted Jul 02, 2015

Michael Raphael, FEMA, Public Domain
Source: Michael Raphael, FEMA, Public Domain

Over the past two years on my NPR-San Francisco radio program, I've been talking to a range of experts on the future of work.

Consensus is that there won't be enough work to go around. Two main reasons: 

1. The ability to automate, computerize, and roboticize is increasing faster than ever.

2. An increased percentage of products are software, which require few people to manufacture.

The lack of work will cause much unhappiness, of course, and perhaps social unrest. Sure, it may free-up time for relationships, creative activity, and community involvement. But having a job is so core to our sense of worth and--more basic--to our ability to survive.

The question is what to do about The Dejobbing of Society:

1. Some, like Jeremy Rifkin and Derek Thompson in the current Atlantic, argue that government needs to require that the work be spread around, for example, by adopting a French-style 30-hour maximum workweek.

I worry about that because currently, on average, the best workers get the most hours. For example, top cardiologists, in great demand, will work 50 or 60 hours a week while inferior ones may have trouble finding enough patients to fill 20 hours. With a 30-hour maximum work week, many patients will be forced to see worse cardiologists. As a result, there will be more unnecessary illness and death. Multiply that decline in quality by the thousands of job titles and it's clear that our quality of goods and services, indeed our quality of life will plummet.

2. Such thinkers also argue that government needs to increase taxes on business and redistribute more to the people and to institutions that would provide social cohesion, such as converting public libraries into community hubs.

Of course, we redistribute greatly already. For example, the top 1% already pay more in federal income tax than do the bottom 90%. If we further raise their taxes, we're redistributing more money from those with the greatest potential to create new products and services, and, in turn, jobs. Too, it will demotivate many of those people: If a person must forfeit to the government too much of what s/he earns, more of these top producers will decide to replace productive time with play time.

A better plan?

The following plan may yield more good:

1. An Ethical Entrepreneurship Army.  I worry about a consumption-centric society. It encourages shallow values and, net, despoils the environment. But new goods and services improve our quality of life---Think, for example, of how the refrigerator, bus, aspirin, and Google improve our lives.

And of course, entrepreneurship creates jobs.

Entrepreneurship is the most important topic our schools don't teach. Society would be wise to prioritize creating an ethical entrepreneurship army. That requires a K-16 curriculum, rich with interactivity and simulation, e.g., creating mock and real businesses. There would be an online version so it would be available to billions of students from Alabama to Zululand. The curriculum perhaps should be funded by the United Nations or World Bank.

2. An Assistance Army. Billions of us need more help: with our newborn, in learning technology, providing homework help for our kids, with domestic chores, caring for our older relatives. The United Nations, World Bank, or federal government should create a website in which people who need assistance can be matched with people who can provide it. AssistanceArmy.gov would be like a massive amalgamation of the Ubers, TaskRabbits, UpWorks, Craigslists and Mechanical Turks of the world. The power of the UN/World Bank/US would be most potent in promoting AssistanceArmy.gov so that many more people would get involved. That would create countless beneficial jobs without the liabilities of a materialism-centric economy.

3. A new Work Projects Administration. As I've written previously and was echoed in Thompson's worthy piece in The Atlantic, tax dollars should be allocated to create societally beneficial jobs that wouldn't be created in the private sector. At once, this would strengthen societal fabric while creating new jobs. Yes, like the old WPA, this might include infrastructure projects but could also include Assistance Army services to people that can't afford to pay for them.

4. Simplicity education. The public needs to learn that, especially in a world in which highly remunerative jobs will be scarce, the life well-led is more likely to be rewarding if based less on materialism and more on relationships, productivity, altruism, creative expression, and the simple pleasures: from nature to music.

Your thoughts?

Of course, so many factors will be affecting the world of work that it would be hubristic of me to assert that my plan will work. I welcome your comments.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.