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Sep072011

CNN.com: Are Jobs Obsolete?

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist and the author of "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age" and "Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World and How We Can Take it Back."

(CNN) -- The U.S. Postal Service appears to be the latest casualty in digital technology's slow but steady replacement of working humans. Unless an external source of funding comes in, the post office will have to scale back its operations drastically, or simply shut down altogether. That's 600,000 people who would be out of work, and another 480,000 pensioners facing an adjustment in terms.

We can blame a right wing attempting to undermine labor, or a left wing trying to preserve unions in the face of government and corporate cutbacks. But the real culprit -- at least in this case -- is e-mail. People are sending 22% fewer pieces of mail than they did four years ago, opting for electronic bill payment and other net-enabled means of communication over envelopes and stamps.

New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures -- from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete. Every new computer program is basically doing some task that a person used to do. But the computer usually does it faster, more accurately, for less money, and without any health insurance costs.

We like to believe that the appropriate response is to train humans for higher level work. Instead of collecting tolls, the trained worker will fix and program toll-collecting robots. But it never really works out that way, since not as many people are needed to make the robots as the robots replace.

And so the president goes on television telling us that the big issue of our time is jobs, jobs, jobs -- as if the reason to build high-speed rails and fix bridges is to put people back to work. But it seems to me there's something backwards in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.

I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks -- or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

We're living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That's because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food produced to provide everyone in the world with 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. And that's even after America disposes of thousands of tons of crop and dairy just to keep market prices high. Meanwhile, American banks overloaded with foreclosed properties are demolishing vacant dwellings Video to get the empty houses off their books.

Our problem is not that we don't have enough stuff -- it's that we don't have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.

Jobs, as such, are a relatively new concept. People may have always worked, but until the advent of the corporation in the early Renaissance, most people just worked for themselves. They made shoes, plucked chickens, or created value in some way for other people, who then traded or paid for those goods and services. By the late Middle Ages, most of Europe was thriving under this arrangement.

The only ones losing wealth were the aristocracy, who depended on their titles to extract money from those who worked. And so they invented the chartered monopoly. By law, small businesses in most major industries were shut down and people had to work for officially sanctioned corporations instead. From then on, for most of us, working came to mean getting a "job."

The Industrial Age was largely about making those jobs as menial and unskilled as possible. Technologies such as the assembly line were less important for making production faster than for making it cheaper, and laborers more replaceable. Now that we're in the digital age, we're using technology the same way: to increase efficiency, lay off more people, and increase corporate profits.

While this is certainly bad for workers (an artificial construction, in my opinion, such as "slaves" "peasants" "aristocracy" "serfs" - that can be transcended as our relationship to work and consumption changes, and we no longer consider ourselves "consumers" or "workers" or "management", which are all artifacts of the Industrial Age. You are not a worker; you are a person.) and unions, I have to wonder just how truly bad is it for people. Isn't this what all this technology was for in the first place? The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with "career" be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?

Instead, we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.

The communist answer to this question was just to distribute everything evenly. But that sapped motivation and never quite worked as advertised. The opposite, libertarian answer (and the way we seem to be going right now) would be to let those who can't capitalize on the bounty simply suffer. Cut social services along with their jobs, and hope they fade into the distance.

But there might still be another possibility -- something we couldn't really imagine for ourselves until the digital era. As a pioneer of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, recently pointed out, we no longer need to make stuff in order to make money. We can instead exchange information-based products.

We start by accepting that food and shelter are basic human rights. The work we do -- the value we create -- is for the rest of what we want: the stuff that makes life fun, meaningful, and purposeful.

This sort of work isn't so much employment as it is creative activity. Unlike Industrial Age employment, digital production can be done from the home, independently, and even in a peer-to-peer fashion without going through big corporations. We can make games for each other, write books, solve problems, educate and inspire one another -- all through bits instead of stuff. And we can pay one another using the same money we use to buy real stuff.

For the time being, as we contend with what appears to be a global economic slowdown by destroying food and demolishing homes, we might want to stop thinking about jobs as the main aspect of our lives that we want to save. They may be a means, but they are not the ends.

CNN

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Reader Comments (62)

I have been telling my friends and family for some time now that the jobs are not coming back this time. We need a new model. Due to our exporting of hard labor and our giant leaps in technology, we need a model where about half of the people have a job! Your article spells it out much better than I can. I doubt that the political climate will let us do what we need to do. You are right, the current trend is to let the ones without jobs suffer. History tells us, however, that when the suffering becomes bad enough, those "have not" individuals will come after the "haves" and take what they need. They will do this because they have the numbers and, thanks to our gun laws, they have an AK-47 too. The rich are cutting their own throats. They have forgotten that they need to insure that the poor have enough food, health care and flat screen TV's to keep them home and at least half-way contented. Instead, they continue to increase the great divide between rich and poor and ignore history. So, we agree we need a new model. I hope you, and all the other great minds out there, will start developing models that will work. If you do, get them "out there" before it is too late!

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRalph Goodrick

From a friend:

"We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living."

-- Buckminster Fuller

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrushkoff

Hmm...I wonder if the basic human rights you speak of were more affordable (free), could artists reduce prices on their works so they could be enjoyed by more people; could more musicians be playing beuatiful music in the streets; could home gardeners become more productive; could the elderly get the care and attention they deserve from their families; could our children have more time with their parents; could more teachers give our children more space to learn, explore, and play; could we better understand the human condition; would overall stress reduce; would traffic dissipate; would resource or territorial fights be unnecessary; would crime diminish; and would our collective appreciation and understanding of "living" increase?

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercrg

http://www.thevenusproject.com/a-new-social-design/resource-based-economy

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlike-minded

Mr. Rushkoff, you are correct; you have put your finger right on it, and done so in a way that is both understandable and noteworthy to the mainstream media. I am stunned and enlightened. Thank you for giving me some hope for the future. Aquib

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAquib Russell

I suspect that the dual economy of free to play games may be the best model to look at.

Not because its the best but just because it is an actual working model.

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKriss

Given that many jobs (such as those in the postal service) provide less and less value everyday, it would seem natural to cut those jobs to save on tax dollars. Those saved tax dollars could then be transferred back to those workers for creating value in ways that might normally go unpaid (designing games as mentioned above). To me, it has always seemed pointless to "pay" people to stay employed when their job provides less value than their salary. That being said, the feeling of being employed is very important to people in our society.

September 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRory

Dear Mr Rushkoff,

Your article is wonderful and all the more so because I am living the future you are predicting. I graduated from an Ivy League school four years ago and after traveling the world for a while I am without a career. Frankly I don't want one. And I don't need one. My parents will not let me starve or be homeless. So I am at home trying to figure out what to do and more importantly why to do. I am part of that human future where for the first time, we don't really have to do anything to survive.

Within twenty five years alternative energy technologies, including very possibly nuclear fusion (see Lawrenceville Plasma Physics) will be here. Meaning nearly free energy. That, combined with robotics, will make today's EZPass seem like a lot of human effort. We'll be the first species and society to have nothing to do. Instant retirement.

Sounds good no? Isnt that what everyone wants deep down?

However what the hell do I do? And what will we do with a lifetime of stress free time? The struggle for food clothing and shelter keeps you busy, and I suppose gives you a sense that you can accomplish something. I've written what I think is a pretty good book, and patented two inventions, and gone on many a worldwide adventure, but now what? My life is a catch-22, for I won't needlessly subject myself to work drudgery but feel weird 'not doing anything'. Is this what we are all in store for?

I am extremely talented and could do almost anything, but with all my basic needs taken care of, with money not an issue, I am not pushing my book. I am not inventing anything new. I was creative, I like it. I dont need to sell it, so I am not.

I wonder if I am going to do 'nothing' for the next 75 years, but isn't working for the post office, or in a toll booth, just as nothing?

September 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Weinstein

Amazing article. I'm so glad I read it, and now that I've discovered you, I intend to back up and read your other works.

Two problems I had, however ...
1) your characterization of libertarians isn't completely accurate. For a huge group of Americans (mostly in the southeast & midwest), charity has been the vehicle for caring for the poor, and keeping the government out of the charity business isn't the same thing as "just let them suffer." It's my belief that there are agencies of relief that are FAR more effective than government, so I don't say 'no' to government charities because I'm pro-suffering, but because I'd rather volunteer my own time and money where needed than trust the government to steal it via taxation and distribute it as they see fit.

2) I'd like to read a follow-up that includes the reality of competition. Some jobs will always exist, and those that can move to cheaper labor areas will always do so. In China where the labor pracitices are far below American or European standards, they can always win the 'cheap labor' war. Jobs that cannot be moved, however, might be helped by efficiency (like the USPS, which is absurdly inneficcient) and/or by adding value (again, the USPS could make huge gains by retooling to be more environmentally friendly - an effort for which many of us would gladly pay a bit more for a stamp).
Also - let the rich be rich. Rich people will pay a lot more for 'organically grown' foods from small farms, hand-made items, and art work. For example, If the US replaced income tax with a sales tax that exempted food & medicine (and housing?), the rich people would automatically be paying a higher share of the load; since a smaller percentage of their income goes to food & medicine. Yachts, airplanes and expensive art produce good jobs. Investment can increase productivity and promote social change, and the money they spend will be taxed for the common good of those who have less to spend. Unemployed and underemployed will pay hardly any tax - and those that choose to live on less will find they can subsist while being increasingly creative. Just some thoughts.

September 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkirk

Alex does a great job at pointing out the flaw in your plan. He graduated 4 years ago and has no job. Doesn't want a job. Doesn't need a job because he knows his mommy and daddy will take care of his basic needs. With needs taken care of you are changing the human race into new age cattle. They will have all the cud they want and have no need to do anything but graze off of the plate that mommy and daddy provide. Without a goal we will stagnate. Think about evolution. The search for food and the need to avoid threats and stay alive caused animals to develop new ways to deal with problems. Without that drive we will never become better men. Finally I say this, "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will feed his family for life."

September 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

For a useful replacement system which has almost a hundred years of history and has been implemented successfully across at least one large geopolitical unit, look into C.H. Douglas' Social Credit concept or read the book which defined it here.

September 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGary

Alex does not suffer from a flaw in the proposed system; I would respectfully suggest that Alex suffers from a flaw in himself. There are and still would be plenty of problems to solve, all one has to do is expend the energy to find one. One could try doing something to help people who are not as fortunate as oneself, or need help due to disability or age. Teaching comes to mind as well. And I don't think having a stress free life is the goal here, it's merely avoiding the stress of having to find a job to eat, shelter and feed a family.

September 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuoivbo

Mr. Rushkoff, please contact me ASAP so we can arrange for you to pay my bills. I'm available immediately.

Thanks.

September 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPolo

I heard about you today on The Rush Limba Show and while Rush was trying to spin what you wrote I was pleased to here someone that is struggling with the same issues I have been thinking about for years. I plan to write you in grater detail at some future time but for now let me just say congratulations.

Just a couple of quick thoughts for now:
• Any rearranging of our social order that results in us blowing up the planet would be bad.
• That being said the more personal freedom we have the better.

Humanity obviously has enough technology to free its self from want and toil and the technology for us all to live a long long time is just around the corner. What we do with this collective power is being worked out now – in our lifetime – I wish us all the best of luck, but I just don’t know.

September 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWarner Working

Thanks, Douglas Rushkoff. I've been expressing this exact concern to friends for a while, ever since I saw my first self-checkout replace grocery store workers, or no - really, since I read Robert Anton Wilson's Schrodinger's Cat, in which a parallel Earth experiments with an economy where meaningless jobs are no longer the goal.

In this hypothesized world, everyone gets a subsistance dividend (because there's more than enough wealth for this to happen, as I believe is currently the case); those who somehow add to the total wealth by, for example, automating themselves out of their own jobs or improving a process, recieve a yearly additional pension for that value. Those who take on jobs that still do offer some benefit to the world are rewarded for that. Money still exists and can buy things in the same manner as currently (though I imagine with less usury and speculation). Abundance increases, and while some people do stay home and watch TV, most would be motivated to improve themselves. Read studies on the innate need for us to work, to feel fulfilled. Become unemployed for a few months and tell me if you don't feel the need for a job. I guess, though I do not know, that if left jobless but provided for, we would create our own work. We would explore what we really wished, be it art, tinkering, teaching, or the next space program. We also tend to imitate eachother's values, and in a world where self-driven striving became valued above money-making, the system could soon enrich and educate itself to a very different kind of Earth.

Ye disagreers, believing in the importance of jobs, and well-meaning, often: look up statistics on what percentages of jobs are now about looking up statistics. Think of how many jobs of people you know (maybe yourself? certainly myself) that if they evaporated, we'd all be just fine (other than the need to "pay the bills"). Consider the industries that exist only to ride on top of money as a medium (brokers, financiers, lenders to lenders), and consider industries that are nothing more than affiliate programs or scams (life coaches, anyone?), and consider the need to monetize almost everything we can do for ourselves just to keep more JOBS. Consider the mental health professionals that exist to debug the malaise we get from feeling unfulfilled in our current daily tasks. Think also of jobs like translators - near-future automatable. Think hard about call centers.

Of all the people you know, how many work jobs that could be automated out? Replaced with Expert Systems or algorithms? Do you expect this number to decrease? Do you want it to? Is our collective life as a society really rendered better by someone working a cashier position at a chain store, rapidly processing people one after another, leading to that sad depersonalization I've felt in the role and witnessed as a customer? If the human brain, infinite in perception and processing capability, is set to tasks that could be replaced by a machine, is that task really what they should be doing? If jobs are so unneeded that we have to go out of our way to "create" them, are they really a good use of human beings, from the perspective of society, or a good use of our time on Earth, from the perspective of our still sovreign selves?

Read now any study on fulfilling work being linked to health and longevity. Ask what fulfilling work would be like.

Now, pragmatically, we still "need to pay the bills" - an arrangement of questionable origin, but of immediate presence. I don't imagine this arrangement is going to change on a large scale for a long time. The idea of employment not being important seems to be wildly heretical in its ability to get angered replies from almost anyone I've ever confronted with it. I think we're still thinking of the fear of not having a job and that sudden sinking that comes with it when we reject automation. This is understandable - it's scary. But the threat to our paychecks is paradoxically a society of abundance and leisure. There is enough out there, but some have inherited or lobbied for the ability to bottleneck and speculate on that enoughness.

How do we resolve the future (less jobs) with the present (more bills)? A good job would be for you to think about this, hard. Look at what has and hasn't worked. Some great thoughts on it can be found, besides in Douglas Rushkoff's works, in "Sacred Economics" by Charles Eisenstein. For myself? I've figured: reduce my needs, learn skills every day, instead of buying new things learn to make them or find things to reuse, start growing food, work in a community garden, participate in informal economies among your friends, be willing to move to an area with like-minded people who are willing to embrace different currencies, use the internet's abundant free education, learn as many languages as possible, and keep your income low enough that you never become reliant on a high one, but also never have to go into debt or rely on social services that may disappear. When that income finally dries up from the contracting availablity of jobs, I think my friends and I will be ready to live with very little effect.

Recently, a student came to a cookout my friends and I were having, to do a survey for class about how the economic recession has affected us. All of us thought fairly about it and were surprised to realize it didn't affect us at all. None of us owned anything fancy, we rented modest places, we had few possessions - but we were happy and healthy, employed just enough (as much as in a European country - not as much as Americans, who work an absurd amount of hours on average and then sometimes take speed to work two jobs...). I know we're among the fortunate, though most of us came from poor backgrounds and didn't finish college, but I can't help but shake the feeling that life is actually much easier than it's made to seem, and that we shouldn't necessecarily be thankful, as vast beings with only one chance to be alive, to have that job, any job, even if it's irrelevant to our existtances...

September 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMayor Brick Road

I don't understand. In your world, how will Corporate "persons" continue to win the zero-sum money game that is their inherent purpose? Why would you want to eliminate winners by making everyone not a loser? jk ;-)

September 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfireartjohn

First, I don't think Alex fits the model at all, since his parents probably provide him with far more than just basic sustenance (who paid for the Ivy League education?).

This "creative activity" model is not all that different from self-employment, which many people already do (probably more than ever before). And even if food and shelter were provided to all, there would still be a number of real live humans needed to coordinate making and distrubuting food, etc.

A final thought: I think it's important to be careful about putting things like "inspiring one another" into an economic model. Do we really want to quantify the value of our personal interactions? See here for discussion of how putting a price tag on things discourages social cooperation.

September 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

This way of organizing life isn't much different from the lives of 18th and 19th century British clergy, who had almost no requirements in their official "jobs," or even the landed gentry. Some were unproductive, of course, but others created things like photo negatives (Fox Talbot) or Bayesian logic. What they had in common was a rigorous education before they were turned loose with no official expectations.

September 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaughterNumberThree

Thank you so much for writing this. I've been saying almost exactly this to everyone since I was a teenager, and all I've ever received in response is a solemn acknowledgement, a warning to be careful, or hostility in some cases. I've described to my co-workers how easy it would be to automate our job (that shouldn't exist in the first place, because it does absolutely nothing useful for anyone) and mostly done it for myself so I can spend half my work day brooding about how my life is being wasted and held ransom against me by the mental illness of our society, while reading articles that reinforce my style of thinking (what the internet is for, right? :). They agree, but tell me to shut up before I cost them their jobs.

I consider myself fairly eloquent, but I cannot begin to describe the angst and frustration that comes from a critical perspective trapped in a routine of pointless drudgery. If I didn't have a family to feed (including a diabetic 6 year old who requires a stable lifestyle), I would gladly live in a cardboard box and be free. I hope to see more more high-profile articles spreading these ideas. Change can't come soon enough.

Also, allow me to present myself as the counter-example to Alex. I have only ever been bored when forced to do things that I don't care about (which is unfortunately most of the time). Whenever I'm left to my own devices, I can always find something to do. Even when I was a little kid living in the middle of nowhere with tons of free time but no friends, few electronics, and surrounded mostly by cornfields, I could always find something interesting to do. I think I need at least a few dozen unfettered lifetimes to experience everything that life has to offer. I may not always be productive in my free time, but I honestly cannot understand having nothing to do. Boredom is the act of wasting opportunity.

September 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Heathman

While I'd like to agree with the majority of the content in your article there are a few points that just glare at me. It's very grand to say that we should accept food and shelter as human rights, but I've lived on a farm and come from generations of farmers and growing the food needed to get everyone their 2,720 kilo-calories is hard work even with modern technology and goes largely unnoticed by people who want to declare food a human right. Someone has to grow the food, it's not a job that goes obsolete. Factory farms are becoming the norm today and for the increase in efficiency they give us we get increases food containment cases, declining food quality and alarming drug resistances beginning in many food animals.

I'm not arguing against the dream of a society where we are not toiling pointlessly en masse but I think we need to more carefully consider how we go about declaring food and shelter human rights, they are not things that are naturally imbued upon us or conferred by common consent, someone has to do extensive labor to provide them and if we try to convey them universally on all we may reduce those who provide them to a lower class which would be unacceptable.

September 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Something I think we almost loose sight of is that many large corporates are no longer really in the business of producing stuff. Production of stuff is becoming a by-product of of their main interest, making money.

September 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

i was with you until the "solution" part of your article. i agree that jobs are a dying concept, and i love the way you frame this. however, i don't agree that the digital era is the grand new model. we do need certain basic, and luxury, items in this world and people are often motivated, not only by things, but by experiences such as travel. as such, the exchange of ideas is not revenue generating, it is only part of the picture. there is no single, simplistic solution. i wonder how we'd frame the education industry, for example, under this model…

September 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterelle queue

You're thinking on why the Post Office is on the verge of default is incorrect. For some reason they are required to make a 5 billion dollar yearly payment for health benefits for employees that are not even born yet. The Post Office actually makes a profit if you discount this bizarre payment. A very interesting video on the subject is available here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPuz1ScIetU. Would love to hear what you think about this.

September 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBen

So totally on the mark. It's pretty much universally understood that, given moore's law, we will have computers capable of human intelligence within 10-20 years. The only two things holding back development of an "android" replacement for humans is vision and language, and those gaps will also quickly be closed.

The first wave of automation was "dumb" -- welding robots or ATMs that could perform mindless repetitive tasks without error. But the trend is going white collar now.

Just look at the facts of today -- 2% of all "soldiers" in Afghanistan are robots, Pilots are soon to be replaced by automation (check out the Navy's X-47B), 1/3rd of all stock transactions are done by computers, Google is testing their driverless cars in Nevada.

And when one industry is "automated", the effects will be deep and profound. Take driverless cars... yes, taxicab drivers will lose their jobs, but probably hundreds of other job titles will be affected as well. These cars should crash less, correct? Then we'll need fewer insurance agents, police officers, hospital staff, auto-body repairmen... We'll also probably start thinking about buying cars ourselves, if we can have an "on-call" cab that's guaranteed to not forget our pickup.

The plain truth I think we're all starting to realize is that a huge part of our existing economy is built on the inefficiencies and (now outdated) capabilities of human labor. A large part of our economy is based on (now outdated) middlemen and inefficiency.

Time to start re-discovering what "economy" means -- "thrifty management; frugality in the expenditure or consumption of money, materials, etc.". Let's stop "trying to get our jobs back" and start planning for the leisure and utopia that automation can provide. This can be an extremely exciting time for the human race... if we all stop trying to re-capture the past, and instead start planning for the future.

September 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterrICh

Mark, it's quite simple. Someone will decide whether you are going to be among the artistic and creative leisure class, the one that no longer has to worry about making ends meet to follow their dreams, or the workers who will grow the food, pour the steel, build the houses, move the trash, and keep the electricity and water coming.

I suspect most people are going to try very hard to be in the former group, and the load on the latter will quickly increase to the point of collapse.

September 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTB

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