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Sarah Jaffe: Are Jobs on Their Way to Becoming Obsolete? And Is That a Good Thing?

September 14, 2011

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Do we have it backward when we call for job creation? Could we instead radically rethink our economy to benefit everyone?

By **Sarah Jaffe**

By arrangement with AlterNet.org.

sarahjaffeprofile.jpgAre jobs obsolete?

Media theorist, and author of Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back, Douglas Rushkoff ruffled some feathers this week when he dared, at CNN.com of all places, to ask that question. It seemed, perhaps, gloriously insensitive to the plight of unemployed workers, of union workers at the U.S. Postal Service, who are struggling like so many others to stay afloat in an uncertain economy while they’re demonized in the press as greedy for wanting a decent job.

Yet Rushkoff also raises points worth considering, particularly for those of us trying to articulate, in the wake of massive failures of the economic system we’ve lived our whole lives with, some sort of alternative to the cycle of boom, bust, bailout.

He argues that perhaps we’re going about it backward when we call for jobs, that maybe it’s not a bad thing that technology is replacing workers, and points out that actually, we do produce enough food and “stuff” to support the country and even the world—that, in fact, we produce too much “stuff.”

He alternately hearkens back to a past before jobs, when many people worked for themselves on a subsistence level, and forward to a future where we are all busy making games and books and communicating with one another from behind computer screens, with the hours we have to work dwindling.

It’s an argument that recalls others being made today, as the economic crisis collides with the awareness of climate change, as people realize that developed-world lifestyles are unsustainable and perhaps there’s a better way to do things.

It’s utopian, of course, and there are plenty of problems with it. Rushkoff isn’t the only one thinking this way—Jeff Jarvis, another media thinker and advocate for digital technology, argues that “Our new economy is shrinking because technology leads to efficiency over growth.”

Sara Horowitz, founder and CEO of the Freelancers Union, points out in an interview that for many the jobless future has been here for years. “On the one hand what you see is it’s happening across the economy, but you could argue that for poorer workers this is the way it’s been anyway. It’s not like the bottom quintile people had full-time jobs with benefits because then they wouldn’t be poor.” As more and more workers find themselves cobbling together gigs and part-time work in order to get by, she says, “This is part of the middle-class decline, that this is happening to people for whom getting a college degree meant you could have a sustainable economic future.”

Yet Rushkoff argues that we have more than enough to go around:

“[W]e 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.”

“While the economy has unwillingly pushed some people into independent work, many have chosen it because of greater flexibility that lets them skip the dreary office environment and focus on more personally fulfilling projects.”

This is the question, then: How do we solve this problem?

The Jobs We Still Have

While Rushkoff rightly points out that many jobs have been lost to technological advances, whether it’s robots in a factory or self-checkout machines at the grocery store, he does not mention that in the U.S. we lost many jobs as well to outsourcing, as global corporations picked up and moved across the world in search of cheaper labor and fewer regulations on how they treat their workers.

We’re dealing with a global economy, not just America. Our economic crisis is and continues to be global—the stock market in New York is dipping and tossing because of Greece’s debt crisis. And we still need plenty of “stuff” to be able to make things digitally—and much of that stuff is made overseas by horribly exploited workers. Consider this glimpse inside the factory where iPhones, among other bits of fancy technology, are manufactured:

“Talking and stretching are forbidden on the assembly line, and clocking in five minutes late may result in the loss of half a day’s wages. Bathroom use is limited to 10 minutes, which is strictly enforced by an electronic key card.

“Hong Kong’s SACOM recently discovered that workers have been forced to write public “confession letters,” a punishment reminiscent of Maoist China. Mistakes on the assembly line, or even a general accusation of inefficiency, are enough to merit a confession letter.

“Most work involves standing and performing small, repetitive motions. Overtime means 12 hours of almost continuous standing.”

Foxconn Technology, the company that owns the factory, wants to replace human workers with one million robots. And one can scarcely argue, looking at the conditions, that humans ought to be doing this work. And these are the very jobs that our pro-globalization pundits, safe in their posh New York or Washington, DC offices, argue are bringing “development” around the world.

In his excellent work of labor history, Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, the BBC’s Paul Mason draws parallels between workers of the developing world and the labor battles workers fought in years past in industrialized countries from the U.S. to Germany to China. He also points out that workers often embraced the ultimately alienating assembly-line technologies because they allowed for shorter work days—and tells the story of the struggle for those shorter work days by a vibrant, active labor movement.

Who is left in the U.S., with labor under ever-increasing attacks, to fight for the fairer future Rushkoff imagines? And who is going to bring that glorious future to the rest of the world? Sara Horowitz of the Freelancers Union points out that workers now are largely unorganized and lack representation both on the job and as a political force.

It’s worth remembering, though, that before the radicals were purged from the US labor movement, unions were not just fighting for the right to bargain with their bosses for better wages, safer conditions, sick pay. So many of their fights were for the shorter workday and work week. When pundits argue that unions should concentrate on fighting for higher wages, they ignore entirely the long battles that brought us the weekend and the eight-hour day. They ignore the calls for bread, and for roses too.

And when Rushkoff points out that having a “job” (in the sense of working for a boss) perhaps should not be the ultimate goal, I hear echoes of the organizers whose factory occupations led to worker-owned factories instead, where all shared in the work and in the rewards. And Horowitz notes that throughout history there have been a range of different types of unions and organizations to help workers come together to solve problems—and even now, new types of intermediary organizations, unions, co-ops and more, are on the rise as people lean on each other to get through rough times.

Perhaps the biggest problem in Rushkoff’s piece is that he seems to assume that the real work of production will continue to be done far away, out of mind. It’s all too easy to picture a world where the wealthy play at creative work while a peasant class labors in factories and on farms.

If the rest of his piece is to be believed—he does call for fairer distribution of wealth—that’s not what Rushkoff wants, to be sure, any more than it’s what we want. But how do we make sure the work that does need doing gets done?

The Freelance Economy

Here in the U.S., we’ve shifted from a manufacturing economy to the so-called “knowledge economy,” where most of our jobs are not making things but acquiring and transmitting information. Reporters, teachers, media theorists and even Wall Street financiers fall into this category—remember the justification for giving fat bonuses to the executives who tanked the economy was that they were the only ones with enough knowledge to fix what they’d broken?

As the knowledge economy grows, so does the freelance workforce—those people who don’t have a full-time job but make a living doing various types of freelance work. Horowitz argues in an article for The Atlantic:

“This transition is nothing less than a revolution. We haven’t seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost 100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Now, employees are leaving the traditional workplace and opting to piece together a professional life on their own. As of 2005, one-third of our workforce participated in this “freelance economy.” Data show that number has only increased over the past six years. Entrepreneurial activity in 2009 was at its highest level in 14 years, online freelance job postings skyrocketed in 2010, and companies are increasingly outsourcing work. While the economy has unwillingly pushed some people into independent work, many have chosen it because of greater flexibility that lets them skip the dreary office environment and focus on more personally fulfilling projects.”

And Rushkoff writes:

“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.”

One supposes, in his new society, that the Wall Street tycoons simply don’t exist anymore, their “work” being neither the necessary production of things we all need (food, water, energy, shelter) nor actually something that people would do for the pure pleasure of it.

Teachers will no doubt always be necessary. But artists, writers and musicians are struggling mightily in the new economy, where their work can be distributed immediately to larger audiences than they’d ever dreamed of, at far lower cost. When once records and books, magazines and paintings were scarce and thus commanded a price that got handed on to the creator, now people download music and expect to read the news for free online. The problem of scarcity has been solved in part for this type of work, but the larger problem of how the artists continue to eat and pay rent while making the art we all enjoy has not been solved. Sara Horowitz points out that these workers are struggling with a scarcity of economic resources, of fair compensation for their work. “We’re sort of turning the idea of what the economy is for on its head. This part of the workforce isn’t looking to get rich, they’re looking to get by,” she notes.

Rushkoff assumes “we can pay one another using the same money we use to buy real stuff” but doesn’t explain how we get that money.

He does make the point that “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.”

That requires a different way of thinking about the social safety net than what we’ve already got, not to mention a radical expansion of it. But once again, someone has to do the work of producing the food and shelter, and distributing it. That’s where government should come in.

To create a fairer society…we’re going to have to tackle the fundamental inequality that has become ingrained in our society… To move beyond “jobs,” we must move beyond a world where a few have all of the power.

“Throughout Western Europe, provided you’re a citizen, you have a safety net because you’re a person, not because you’re a worker,” Horowitz points out, arguing that the new freelance economy is difficult to navigate because we in the U.S. conceive of the social safety net in terms of jobs. She says that the New Deal-style social safety net is based on the idea of workers in a long-term full-time job: unemployment benefits are only given to those who are laid off from a permanent position, and health insurance and sick pay only come to workers with employers who choose to provide them. We’ll need a new conception of the social safety net for a post-job economy.

Rushkoff’s future requires a certain amount of work for the common good, producing the things we legitimately need, as well as an acceptance that we’re all in it together—that food and shelter, health care and basic security are human rights. These are concepts not alien to many of us, but are almost unthinkable to actually mention in the current political climate. Yet workers around the country and the world may be moving ahead of politicians in search of new ways to support one another.

The Way We Share Now

As we search for a sustainable future, a way to navigate the present where too many of us have too little money, and adapt our lives to new technology, one trend has been emerging all over: sharing.

From the decidedly business-minded website of The Atlantic to YES! Magazine to Shareable.net, it’s been noted—people are buying less, and sharing more. Businesses are learning to cater to a generation of people who want access to things without needing to keep and own them forever. Our very ideas of private property are changing.

Car-sharing services like ZipCar and Philly CarShare allow people access to automobiles only when they need them, for a fraction of the price. Netflix streams video straight to your computer or TV for a small monthly subscription fee, and Spotify now does the same with music.

And as we buy less stuff, Juliet Schor notes, we lower our carbon footprint. And the less we work at jobs, the more time we have to do things ourselves, from spending time with our kids instead of paying babysitters to cooking at home and buying less prepackaged food. Which in turn, cuts down on jobs once again.

If what we have learned from the Great Recession is that we can get by with less stuff and produce what we need with less work, then the answer is, as Dean Baker and others have proposed, for all of us to work a little less. Work-sharing allows more people to get the benefits of a paycheck, and subsidizing those part-time checks with unemployment money, at least in the short term, keeps people able to pay the bills. What if we agreed as a society that we all ought to work less, and that we should be paid the same amount for fewer hours—or even more, in the case of the many who barely survive on multiple full-time jobs as it is?

Economists agree that the current problem with our economy is a lack of demand—that most of us don’t have enough money to spend to stimulate growth, while those who have wealth consolidate rather than spending it. But is “growth” really what we want—do we have this equation wrong once again?

What if we started to think once again about organizing society around what makes life better for all of us?

Rushkoff writes:

“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 backward in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.”

This paragraph should make us all stop in our tracks. For so many of us, who have been steadily calling for government to step in and employ people directly as it’s been made clear that big business has no problem hoarding profits while laying off workers, it is a reminder that we used to argue for more.

The “more” in question, the big issue that goes untouched by Rushkoff in this piece, is that we will need to deal with the idea of redistributing wealth. This is the taboo subject, the thing that gets right-wingers screaming. The problem right now, jobs or no, is that very, very few people control the vast majority of the wealth in the world, and that it has been squeezed out of working people at the bottom. Our society, as Dean Baker and other economists have noted, is structured in a way that has little to do with “free” markets and everything to do with creating mechanisms to shift wealth upward.

To create a fairer society, whether it’s one based on jobs or on sharing or on something else we haven’t yet envisioned, as well as a sustainable one that might not destroy the planet during our lifetimes, we’re going to have to tackle the fundamental inequality that has become ingrained in our society, that hangs over all of our lives. To move beyond “jobs,” we must move beyond a world where a few have all of the power.

________________________________________________________________________

This post originally appeared at AlterNet.org.

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.

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