Or that the company behind the most popular search engine would design a self-driving car that could soon threaten driving, the most common job occupation among American men? In , Oxford University researchers forecast that machines might be able to perform half of all U. But to suggest how this could change, some economists have pointed to the defunct career of the second-most-important species in U. For many centuries, people created technologies that made the horse more productive and more valuable—like plows for agriculture and swords for battle.
One might have assumed that the continuing advance of complementary technologies would make the animal ever more essential to farming and fighting, historically perhaps the two most consequential human activities. Instead came inventions that made the horse obsolete—the tractor, the car, and the tank. After tractors rolled onto American farms in the early 20th century, the population of horses and mules began to decline steeply, falling nearly 50 percent by the s and 90 percent by the s.
Humans can do much more than trot, carry, and pull. But the skills required in most offices hardly elicit our full range of intelligence. Most jobs are still boring, repetitive, and easily learned.
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The most-common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk. Together, these four jobs employ Each is highly susceptible to automation, according to the Oxford study. Technology creates some jobs too, but the creative half of creative destruction is easily overstated.
Is that certain—or certainly imminent? The signs so far are murky and suggestive. But the possibility seems 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.
To paraphrase the science-fiction novelist William Gibson, there are, perhaps, fragments of the post-work future distributed throughout the present. I see three overlapping possibilities as formal employment opportunities decline. Some people displaced from the formal workforce will devote their freedom to simple leisure; some will seek to build productive communities outside the workplace; and others will fight, passionately and in many cases fruitlessly, to reclaim their productivity by piecing together jobs in an informal economy.
These are futures of consumption , communal creativity , and contingency. In any combination, it is almost certain that the country would have to embrace a radical new role for government. The post-workists are certainly right about some important things.
Paid labor does not always map to social good. Raising children and caring for the sick is essential work, and these jobs are compensated poorly or not at all. In a post-work society, Hunnicutt said, people might spend more time caring for their families and neighbors; pride could come from our relationships rather than from our careers. The post-work proponents acknowledge that, even in the best post-work scenarios, pride and jealousy will persevere, because reputation will always be scarce, even in an economy of abundance. But with the right government provisions, they believe, the end of wage labor will allow for a golden age of well-being.
Hunnicutt said he thinks colleges could reemerge as cultural centers rather than job-prep institutions. Instead, they watch TV or sleep. Time-use surveys show that jobless prime-age people dedicate some of the time once spent working to cleaning and childcare. Retired seniors watch about 50 hours of television a week, according to Nielsen. That means they spend a majority of their lives either sleeping or sitting on the sofa looking at a flatscreen. The unemployed theoretically have the most time to socialize, and yet studies have shown that they feel the most social isolation; it is surprisingly hard to replace the camaraderie of the water cooler.
Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments.
Five Minutes' Peace
Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury. The very things that help many people recover from other emotional traumas—a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose—are not readily available to the unemployed. The transition from labor force to leisure force would likely be particularly hard on Americans, the worker bees of the rich world: Between and , annual hours worked per worker fell significantly throughout Europe—by about 40 percent in Germany and the Netherlands—but by only 10 percent in the United States.
Richer, college-educated Americans are working more than they did 30 years ago, particularly when you count time working and answering e-mail at home. In , the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Judith LeFevre conducted a famous study of Chicago workers that found people at work often wished they were somewhere else. But in questionnaires, these same workers reported feeling better and less anxious in the office or at the plant than they did elsewhere.
Other researchers have used the term guilty couch potato to describe people who use media to relax but often feel worthless when they reflect on their unproductive downtime. Contentment speaks in the present tense, but something more—pride—comes only in reflection on past accomplishments. The post-workists argue that Americans work so hard because their culture has conditioned them to feel guilty when they are not being productive, and that this guilt will fade as work ceases to be the norm. Less passive and more nourishing forms of mass leisure could develop.
Arguably, they already are developing. The Internet, social media, and gaming offer entertainments that are as easy to slip into as is watching TV, but all are more purposeful and often less isolating. Video games, despite the derision aimed at them, are vehicles for achievement of a sort. Most people do need to achieve things through, yes, work to feel a lasting sense of purpose. To envision a future that offers more than minute-to-minute satisfaction, we have to imagine how millions of people might find meaningful work without formal wages.
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Artisans made up the original American middle class. Before industrialization swept through the U. These artisans were ground up by the machinery of mass production in the 20th century. But Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard, sees the next wave of automation returning us to an age of craftsmanship and artistry. In other words, it would be a future not of consumption but of creativity, as technology returns the tools of the assembly line to individuals, democratizing the means of mass production.
Several hundred members pay a monthly fee to use its arsenal of machines to make gifts and jewelry; weld, finish, and paint; play with plasma cutters and work an angle grinder; or operate a lathe with a machinist. When I arrived there on a bitterly cold afternoon in February, a chalkboard standing on an easel by the door displayed three arrows, pointing toward bathrooms , pewter casting , and zombies.
Near the entrance, three men with black fingertips and grease-stained shirts took turns fixing a year-old metal-turning lathe. Behind them, a resident artist was tutoring an older woman on how to transfer her photographs onto a large canvas, while a couple of guys fed pizza pies into a propane-fired stone oven. Elsewhere, men in protective goggles welded a sign for a local chicken restaurant, while others punched codes into a computer-controlled laser-cutting machine. The foundry is not just a gymnasium of tools. It is a social center.
Alex Bandar, who started the foundry after receiving a doctorate in materials science and engineering, has a theory about the rhythms of invention in American history. Over the past century, he told me, the economy has moved from hardware to software, from atoms to bits, and people have spent more time at work in front of screens. But as computers take over more tasks previously considered the province of humans, the pendulum will swing back from bits to atoms, at least when it comes to how people spend their days.
Bandar thinks that a digitally preoccupied society will come to appreciate the pure and distinct pleasure of making things you can touch.
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So what do we do? Actually talk to each other again? The Internet and the cheap availability of artistic tools have already empowered millions of people to produce culture from their living rooms. People upload more than , hours of YouTube videos and million new Facebook photos every day. The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests—to live as cultural producers.
Such activities offer virtues that many organizational psychologists consider central to satisfaction at work: independence, the chance to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose. After touring the foundry, I sat at a long table with several members, sharing the pizza that had come out of the communal oven. I asked them what they thought of their organization as a model for a future where automation reached further into the formal economy. A mixed-media artist named Kate Morgan said that most people she knew at the foundry would quit their jobs and use the foundry to start their own business if they could.
Late in the conversation, we were joined by Terry Griner, an engineer who had built miniature steam engines in his garage before Bandar invited him to join the foundry. Sign in to Purchase Instantly.
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Explore Now. Buy As Gift. About the Author Rabbi Alan Lurie has a unique background. Show More. Average Review. Write a Review. Anonymous More than 1 year ago Author has great insight into human nature. Simple, everyday challenges with solutions based on faith and scripture.