Is Work Obsolete?

If so what about school?

by Jeffrey M. Welch

When was the last time you saw one of these in your office?
Putting on my social scientist hat today, a future where there are too few jobs and lots of idle citizens is becoming a very real possibility and maybe very soon. There is so much discussion in the U.S. about the decline of the middle class, including arguments about the causes and solutions. Less often contemplated is that we may very well be headed for a world where having a career looks extremely different than it has for the past century or so. Many may get no chance at a career at all!

Such a scenario has been contemplated for more than a few decades. One can imagine that this could either be a boon to culture and life, or a total disaster. Much of the determination of this outcome will be how we decide to cope with this phenomenon. Automation is no doubt killing jobs every bit as much as globalization has been. In the past few decades, jobs have left our country for cheaper labor in China, India, and so on. Robots have replaced many other jobs. As we go forward, the laborers that have done so well in the emerging world may find a short-lived period of prosperity as automation cuts deep into their jobs as it has already done here. One only needs look at how high tech a typical McDonald’s franchise has become to see a day where they will need few to no employees at all. A fifteen-dollar minimum wage won’t be worth much if they don’t need a human. 

As a teacher, I have been aware for some time that our schools are not broken, they just are training students for a world that isn’t around anymore (see Sugata Mitra). Our school system has done what it was asked to do very effectively. It is just that our bosses (I mean Congress and the state legislatures) have yet to figure out that they have given us the wrong purpose. The good jobs for middle classes from the mid-20th Century are gone and aren’t coming back. We are going to have to drastically change our expectations for life, leisure, education, and our worth as human beings.

For a great overview of this check out this article from the Atlantic Monthly.  We are in for a big change and this is going to impact our economic life, but as the article clearly points out, it is going to have a psychological hit as well. Work provides money, but it provides status, camaraderie and purpose too. How does one get that in a country where we have been trained to sacrifice so much for our careers?

If leaders and citizens start paying attention to this and begin to reorient our society as this change comes there is a really hopeful future where rather than mindless work that so many complain about, we could actually maximize human potential by having our citizens work on what they love, are good at, and what gives them joy. To do this will take a radical rethink of our government, economics, families, and even how and why we build cities. This future could be awesome, but threading that needle could also be terrifying for many.

Bottom line future career advice: Interested in working in the future, choose a career that cannot be easily automated.