Reflections on “The Future of Work”

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Derek Thompson (far right) and panelists at “Future of Work” Photo (c) 2017, Robert C Trube

The other day, I ordered food at my favorite Panera without talking to a person. A kiosk allowed my to swipe “My Panera” card, greeted me by name on screen, displayed the menu by categories, allowed me to select items, check out and make a payment with my credit card. A receipt was emailed to me. It took people to prepare my food, but only one person was working checkout. Most people were using kiosks.

A few years ago, three or four people would have been doing what the kiosks did. My experience illustrated what several speakers at an event I helped host Tuesday evening were exploring. Work is changing, and automation in various forms is either changing our work, or requiring that we change jobs, if we can.

The event was called “The Future of Work.” Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic moderated a discussion with three academics, a development economist, a labor economist, and a marketing and information technology professor. It was a rich conversation that opened my eyes to some vitally important issues.

Thompson came to my attention a year ago when he wrote an article titled “A World Without Work.” It explored what happens when technology change and market forces put people out of work. And significantly for me, the article centered around time he spent in my home town of Youngstown, Ohio, a city that knows all too well the dislocations of the loss of jobs, shrinking from a high of 170,000 people when I was young to just over 60,000 at present. Talking personally with Derek, we talked about the “Youngstown diaspora” in my own city of Columbus, Ohio, which has a growing rather than shrinking population. We noted how so many who could leave Youngstown, because of education and other factors, did so, and how this changed the fabric of the city, and so many others like it.

Thompson, both in his talk, and in the article made the observation that “many people hate their jobs, but they are considerably more miserable doing nothing.” One of our panelists, reflecting his Christian beliefs (it was a religiously diverse group) noted that work came before the fall in Genesis. It reflects something of what humans made in the image of God are like. God worked, and it seems work, as well as rest, is important to being human. It was after the fall that work got laborious and frustrating, hence the tension we live in between not always liking our work, but hating not working more.

The panel explored the implications this raises in a world where technology might both put people out of work, and possibly mean others will work less. What will we do with the disparities of income between those who profit tremendously from either making the technology or using it to entertain–and the others who don’t? They explored the idea of the “universal basic income”– a guaranteed level of income for all whether they have employment or not. Most were pretty ambivalent or even opposed to this idea–kind of like society rather than parents supporting us while we live in our basement playing video games.

Another question that was discussed was what will we do should we need to work less to earn sufficient income on which to live? Will we just consume? Or will we find other ways to work, perhaps to create things, or to serve others? Or will we work and earn more than we need, simply because work is what we do? There is a question of what a life well-lived looks like should remunerative work be less of a necessity.

One of the clearest things to come out of the night is that many jobs face automation. Thompson had us consider clerical workers, for example the grocery clerk who grabs an item, scans an item, bags an item, and repeats. There might be some good that comes out of eliminating hard, repetitive, and tedious work. But automation is spreading far beyond this. We are talking about computers driving cars and trucks on one hand, and computers doing radiological diagnostics on the other. It is either people in the service economy doing very relational things with other humans, or people in the knowledge industry, those who create, maintain, or utilize the technology, who will be the last to be automated. Computers do not compose great music or write great books–or invent iPads!

Even if new technology creates as many jobs as it eliminates (about which I am uncertain), the people who lose a livelihood are in great pain. Such things raise questions about what kinds of inner resources do we cultivate against such possibilities, and also what kind of society will we be when change causes such dislocation and pain. Will we be a zero sum society with winners and losers, or will we find ways to stand with those who suffer–to make our neighbor’s pain our own and get through it together?

It seems to me that we cannot afford either a mentality of entitlement for ourselves or indifference to our neighbors. Our families, our schools and our religious institutions alike need to form people to embrace change rather than to hate it or cling to the familiar past. Perhaps it is the bedrock of belief that enables us to cope with the changes in our environment. It is a danger that some of our panelists discussed, that we make work, especially in a particular career, that bedrock. Yet, in a time of great change, this is shaky ground at best. Do we not need something else that gives us the wherewithal to grow and change, grieve and embrace, and discover an abiding joy that sustains us through the changes of life, including changes in how we work? The truth is, none of us knows what the future holds. For some, the answer is in the cliche’ of “knowing Who holds the future.” Whether you buy that or not, the changing world of work poses the question of “what grounds my life?”

[Derek Thompson, in addition to his editorial post at The Atlantic, is the author of the recently published Hit Makers, reviewed here.]

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