The Future of Work

     There was a commentary in the 4/9 Albany Times-Union by Philip Lord, “Jobs? For All? Says Who?” (Here’s a link.) Lord worries that we’ll never again have full employment because businesses are figuring out how to provide more and more goods and services with ever fewer workers. He sees a need for some sort of radical change in our whole economic model.


     We’ve been hearing such foolishness for at least two centuries. From its beginnings, the Industrial Revolution was fought by Luddites fearing that people would become redundant. Every technological advance has encountered the same dire predictions that human beings would have no place in the future economic landscape. And meantime Malthusians have perennially warned that population growth would outrun food production.


     Of course none of these fears has ever come true. The opposite has happened. World population has exploded – but human productivity has grown even faster, so that living standards have risen, not fallen. Rather than depriving people of jobs, technology frees them to do different jobs, and always creates needs for those different jobs. Luddites like Lord never learn this. A growing population does not impoverish us because, thanks to technology, most people produce more than they consume. World average incomes today, in constant dollars, are five times greater than a century ago.


     Lord’s commentary rhapsodizes about the pre-industrial hunter-gatherer lifestyle, a supposedly halcyon Eden where the environment provided people’s needs “free for the taking.” Money was a convenience, not a necessity, Lord says; people worked but did not have “jobs.”


     Nor much else, one might add. Nature provided, but it was the equivalent of living on less than a dollar a day. To use Hobbes’s famous line, life was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Its average span was around twenty years. That picture actually didn’t change much until the Industrial Revolution, enabling humanity to harness energy in our service as never before.


     That has brought with it some problems, to be sure. But the bigger picture is human betterment on an almost inconceivably vast scale. And that has not come to a screeching halt in 2009. I am excited about the human future.


One Response to “The Future of Work”

  1. Gregory Kipp Says:

    I believe human potential is nearly unlimited. Who knows, someday we may even create that utopian society everybody dreams about, and reach out to the stars to spread our kind to other solar systems. Regardless how our advancement progresses, one thing for sure is there will be change. Whether it be automation of blue collar jobs which are replaced with new kinds of jobs, or the global connectivity provided by the internet, or global warming. there will be changes that worry people who are comfortable with the status quo.

    It seems to me that we, as a society, have been around this block enough times to have finally understood it’s time to make a realistic appraisal of what the real problems are with technical progress, and how to address them. There are things to worry about, and in one sense, Lord has a right to be worried because people who have made a career out of a job that suddenly disappears face a personal hardship. But it’s also true that society at large may have benefitted by the new jobs created and the increased average wealth of it’s citizens.

    Perhaps the answer with jobs is to create some kind of transition program when needed to moderate personal hardship cases. And I’m not talking about throwing more money at the problem — the government already pays jobless benefits. Perhaps we just need to recognize these transitional periods exist and think more intelligently about how to deal with them.

    One of the major problems we are coming to recognize with technological advancement, is that it allows us to do so well we are capable of ourgrowing the carrying capacity of our home planet. To some extent, technology compensates by creating alternatives to resources that have become scarce. But it’s starting to become obvious that we can’t carry on business as usual without serious long-term damage to the environment. Think I read somewhere that, if everyone on Earth were to live the same life style as we do, eight Earth’s would be required to provide the necessary resources.

    For those rational optimists out there, that, it seems to me, is the real issue of business to be dealt with. Jobs will take care of themselves if we have a government that has any sort of empath for it’s citizens. It’s the big issues no one has been taking much mind of that bother me. I suppose being optimistic means believing we will manage to create a civilization where all humanity can live on Earth in harmony with the environment. Because that’s ultimately what it’s going to take.

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