Monday, May 6, 2013

Work: What's it Good For?

I love my job.

Okay? I love going to work each day and teaching what I know about ancient history to middle school students. I like the challenge of my job and like taking small steps every day to be better at what I do. I'm one of those very lucky people that has the job they would have picked. If I won the lottery tomorrow I really would go to work the next day.

In other words, I'm lucky and I know it.

However, a question has been pressing on my mind more and more recently. Why do we have to work? Clearly, until artificial intelligence progresses, someone needs to be in a classroom helping and encouraging young learners. So I have a few more years of relatively stable employment. But that's just not the case for every industry.

Think about it. Manufacturing jobs are moving back to the states, but they're being filled by robots. Craigslist employs 35 people, makes a respectable amount of money, and has destroyed the market for classified ads across the country. There are search programs sophisticated enough to do most of the legal discovery process once employing legions of paralegals. The idea of technology rendering jobs and businesses obsolete is nothing new. However the speed at which entire industries find themselves irrelevant continues to accelerate.

So, I'll ask the question again. Why is that a problem? Why can't we accept that more and more people now living simply don't have any feasible way to get a full-time job. 6.7 million Americans have left the job market since 2007, and the labor participation rate is at an all-time low of 63.3%. Any study you read will tell you that the longer this subset of the population goes without a job, the less likely they will ever find a job. Perhaps we should move away from ensuring everyone has a job and making sure that people can survive?

I know, I know. You probably have the same answer I do, which is: people need to work. People who don't work lack direction in their lives and probably have trouble finding meaning in their lives. There's something noble about work. I've heard it all.

I'm just not sure I believe it anymore. I want to keep working for as long as they let me but I know for many people that's just not an option anymore. As the pace of innovation increases, more and more of a person's professional life gets spent training for every-shorter periods of employment. At some point you have to wonder, is it really worth all of this preparation just for a chance at the brass ring?

So what do we do? Hand out a guaranteed income to make sure the economy functions in much the same way it always has? That's sort of like using socialism to prop up capitalism. Do we move towards a new economy derived from social networks and crowd-sourcing? It's difficult to imagine what this would look like, if it's even feasible. There are myriads of possibilities, in varying degrees of likelihood.

Maybe we do nothing. The rich stay rich, increasingly the only beneficiaries of the capitalist game. The poor rely of every smaller government entitlements, supplementing their quality of life with goods created cheaply from technologies such as 3D printing.

I don't know. My point is, I wish someone would start asking a very simple question:

Why do we all have to work?
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