The Future Of The Job

Between watching all your friends and relatives doing the ALS ice bucket challenge recently, you may have stumbled across the great “Humans Need not Apply” video from the mysterious CGP Grey. It’s a really beautifully produced piece of work and extremely thought provoking.

Interestingly, Mr. Grey – not that Mr Grey? – makes no attempt to present both sides of the argument (as we here at the Center for the Future of Work do); i.e., that automation indeed destroys some jobs (the taxi driver next?) but also creates others (Help Wanted: Twitter Data Wrangler – Apply Within).  

Like a good barrister (that’s a fancy English lawyer by the way, not someone who pours you an overpriced coffee) CGP Grey skillfully makes the argument and forensically destroys the counter argument. It’s compelling, arresting, and ultimately scarier than anything Hollywood’s put out in ages.

With respect to the “dark side” glass-is-half empty view (and going beyond the “Humans Need not Apply” video), many sources looking at this issue have cited Frey and Osborne’s work at Oxford: (“About 47% of total U.S. employment is at risk over the next decade or two”). Arresting to be sure – but is it time to prepare for the Human Zoo just yet? 

Analysts like Gartner have suggested that what Frey and Osborne’s work doesn’t take into account is that net-new jobs will be created as a result of these trends, and also that current jobs of today will actually be enhanced by the transformation that automation through technology brings. That said, there is no question that disruption is coming to certain sectors: Gartner’s models DO see a scenario of ~17 percent of “routine”, repeatable tasks being truly disrupted by 2020.  So the question is one of magnitude. And the Big Picture of what “a job” may look like in the coming years.

On balance, “Humans Need not Apply” rests on a couple of somewhat questionable foundational assumptions. The main one is the oft-repeated motif of “90% of people used to work in agriculture … but now only 2-3% do”.

This implies that people had “jobs” in the way we think about them now, then; at the Center for the Future of Work, we’re not so sure that’s accurate.

Have you read the Little House on the Prairie series? Mr. Ingalls didn’t have a “job” in agriculture – he was in essence a subsistence food producer/house carpenter and contents maker/do-it-yourselfer for everything, and to boot a trader of his output for other people’s output (a barterer).

Until very recently (in human historical terms), that’s how the majority of people lived around the world. Of course, many still do.

To use another TV analogy, the people who work(ed) at Downton Abbey sort of (had) have a “modern” job … but only just. More accurately they live as retinue within the Downton Abbey “ecosystem” – their compensation is food, accommodation, protection, and a small amount of “spending money”.

Maybe the future of work (for a lot of people) is:

  • A return to “subsistence” living (Jefferson’s yeoman farmer ideal, which distrusted elitism, privilege, and aristocracy) - localized, DIY, multi-tasking (taking the odd jobs at Uber or Task Rabbit), underpinned by a base level of government transfers. We’ve anecdotally observed quite a few people nearby Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who are already living like this. And additional, successful examples of urban homesteading are also playing out across the country.
  • “Retinue” like existence within the ecosystem of a Google, Apple, The People’s Liberation Army, Facebook, Sony, Fujitsu, etc. Compensation is food (free all you can eat 24/7 canteens? Check!), accommodation (on-site hoteling? Check!), protection (health benefits and some level of job security), and a small amount of additional spending money (for your one Sunday afternoon off per month). [This all reads like Dave Eggers’ The Circle!]

Maybe “the job” as we’ve known it in our working lives was a transitory economic arrangement, no more platonically ideal than being a footman for a Lord or a warrior for a King was (you have to love the line from Our Love is Here to Stay – “the radio, and the telephone, and the movies that we know, may just be passing fancies and in time may go”).

Maybe the personal mobility created by pure money based compensation is breaking down (because of “bot” economics).

Imagine a scenario where money-based compensation – originally offered at scale by places like iron works and cotton mills at the outset of the industrial revolution, creating the notion of the “modern job” – won’t (or can’t) survive into a future where hyper-efficient Code Halo infused production processes (of digit and widget based outcomes) require no more than  20-25% of the population in 5-9 (AM to PM) employment. The irony here is that for many/most Baby Boomers and Gen Xers – not to mention Salary Men in Japan, City Whiz Kids in the UK, etc.  (i.e., the parents of the current Millennials about to inherit this world) – this is precisely the type of job/employment/life-path that was expected and encouraged. It was “where the action was”. 

If you’re bright enough to get a job as a (ahem) Vint Cerf (in this context, there is poetry in that surname) at Google, your food, transport, entertainment, accommodation, kids’ education, retirement will all be provided free. This will, in essence, be your compensation. (Maybe the real Cerfs will have more additional goodies and stock options than “the Serfs”, but you get the idea…)

If you’re not, you’ll be in DIY mode out in your little house on the prairie.  

Where these scenarios breaks down in our minds is at the “Model-T argument” championed by Henry Ford, who wanted to make sure his workers earned enough to buy the cars they were producing. What happens when the 75% can’t afford what the 25% make? Trouble in paradise.  

It also breaks down because of the transitory existence of corporations; the 1950’s and 60’s equivalents of Google and Facebook (Chrysler and Pan Am) collapsed under the weight of their paternalistic/predatory (depending on your political perspective) employment practices (i.e., generous pensions tomorrow to compensate for underwhelming pay raises today). This is also playing out in the public sector now as well. 

But is there is a sneaking suspicion – dare we say, dream? – that for many a midlevel corporate worker of today, the “race” they’re running is really about having that breakthrough liquidity moment as soon as possible so that you can spend your days “doing other things”. Say, becoming a yoga master, organic gardener, musician, pickling/fermenting/homebrewing small batch products… you know: creative, cottage industry stuff. You can hear them now: “If only I had enough money to give me the security to strike out on my own, pay the mortgage AND save enough money to ensure I can pay for a decent university when the time comes.”

But looking at the above a different way: is there a new possibility dawning that may allow people to “get there” with respect to what they REALLY want to be doing (not necessarily expected of them), without “passing GO” in the first place regarding work/career/model templates of the past?  Perhaps, but – always a “but” – there’s a counterargument (this from Salon, re: Generation X): 

If we can’t take a break from the urban farms, put down the knitting and home brewing equipment, and step into politics, business and other kinds of leadership, we’ll deserve our reputation as the generation that never quite showed up.

Of course, it was from little homesteaded A-frames that the American miracle sprouted and maybe a new cycle of renewal and growth in DIY mode is already playing out, beneath the radar. And far from being driven by apathy – people doing this today are usually united by one thing: they’re fiercely passionate about it. 

Consider this scenario: Mr. Ingalls’s grandson (or great-great grandson) has jumped off the corporate flywheel (which his Dad, sick of losing to “Big Ag” in the current farming game-of-scale he’d inherited from Mr. Ingalls Senior, encouraged him to go into, via college and business school).  He is now living out his childhood dream of returning to Pa’s farm to make it work. The new Mr. Ingalls has seen an opportunity to drive competitive differentiation in grass fed meat (as opposed to conventional feed-lot/corn fed).  He’s started small, grown the business bit by bit, secured some marquee restaurant customers, and is now bang in the middle of the new gastro-tourism boom (supercharged by marketing and selling through social media).

We’re already seeing signs of this type of highly educated, back-to-the-land movement, even where demand for skilled labor is in short supply (the Institute for Urban Homesteading is in Oakland, a stone’s throw away from Silicon Valley). Interest in this mode of the “maker” (in some ways fuelled by the DIY nature of the Great Recession) is at an all-time high, and the “return of the grange” is making headlines. Skepticism for “the establishment” seems to be everywhere, be it Big Ag, Big Tobacco, Big Fat, Big Entertainment, Big Religion, Big Sports, Big Politics, etc.  Is it any wonder there’s a fixation on small, niche restaurants, bakers, farmers, sushi masters and chefs as the “rock stars” of the 21st century? 

It is possible that people, and jobs, are quickly headed to something that is more human in scale, and allow for the interaction promised by the new technology in the first place?

That said, it is imperative to address the insecurity this type of system may generate. You hear a lot about the “underemployed” and those that have just stopped looking for work that fall off the unemployment radar. Consider Spain – the people described in this video may at first blush be forgiven for having what seems like an idyllic existence – chatting with friends, dancing, gardening – until at minute 1:40 when the speaker starkly reminds us they’re doing things to keep their mind off the sheer, cold reality of the crisis of being unemployed in the first place. 

There may be a historical precedent: Marshall Sahlins presented in his scholarly work “Notes on the Original Affluent Society" which posited that, all things being equal, the “backwards” hunter-gatherers of history spent fewer hours working to feed, house, and provide clothing for their families – with extra time left over for a renaissance of art, stories, romance, trade and travel. So, if you strip away the complexities that AI and bots cause, and REALLY find the sweet spot at the intersection of man-machine collaboration (including the vaguely – perhaps disturbingly – Marxist notion of “having enough”), things could get very interesting.

One useful analogy worth exploring here may come – again! – from the agricultural sector: the current Farm Bill pays some farmers not to grow crops — in order to avoid oversupply that would drive food prices down for the rest of us. Is it possible that we’ll see a “People Bill” – among the 17% to 48%, depending – that takes the same tack? Paying people that don’t work, so that prices remain stable?  In effect, that is exactly the theory behind unemployment insurance, i.e., every $1 in assistance is $1 that goes back into keeping the US economy moving, through consumer spending… Fast forward to today – is a social democratic model coming to a government near you?

But then there’s the (in)convenient reality of the Puritanical Work Ethic that pervades American society. Work hard and the rewards will flow. Thinking of the “retinue” model, this is where Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey makes a good case: As his daughter is looking to modernize management practices (proto-Thatcher), she realizes a renter is in arrears paying rent on their holdings. Lord Grantham counters by making the noble, if capitalistically illogical case that – cold hard efficiencies of the free hand be damned – “everyone plays their part”. In other words, it would be far better – and more noble – to keep the man working his land, productively, if not profitably. 

The current juncture we’re at is summed up beautifully by Wired Magazine

“In the present, ensuring that everyone has enough often seems harder for humans to accomplish than producing enough in the first place. But assuming a future that looks more like Star Trek than Blade Runner, a lot of people could end up with a lot more time on their hands. In that case, robots won’t just be taking our jobs; they’ll be forcing us to confront a major existential dilemma: if we didn’t have to work anymore, what would we do?...

…By eliminating the need for people to work, robots would free us up to focus on what really makes us human. The scariest possibility of all is that only then do we figure out what really makes us human is work.”

What do you think?

Anyway, great job Mr. Grey. Looking forward to the next video – this one is in a theatre near you in February 2015.