The End of Work

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The jobless economy: a fully automated, engineered, robotic system that doesn’t need YOU, or me either. Anything we can do, machines can do better – surgery, warfare, farming, finance. What’s to do: shall we smash the machines, or go to the beach, or finally learn to play the piano?

First, some numbers.

There’s a trend in the economy that came up big in our show on Thomas Piketty’s inequality tome. Between 2000 and 2014, the median U.S. income has actually dropped: from $55,986 to $51,017. Over the same period corporate profits have more than doubled. The workforce participation rate in May of this year was 62.8%, the lowest since 1978. The level of investment in equipment and software bounced back to 95% of its historical peak just two years after the same recession that trashed all the jobs that have been so slow to come back.

One of the questions of that inequality story — big gains at the top, stagnation (or worse) at the middle and bottom — is how much is owed to the technology part of the capital, and really the automation of jobs formerly held by human beings. We know that the number of American ‘routine jobs’ dropped by 11 percent between 2001 and 2011. And a new study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University suggest that 47% of U.S. jobs might be vulnerable to loss by automation, with telemarketers, sewers, watch repairers, umpires, models, and cooks likeliest to go.

We start the conversation there, at what McAfee and Brynjolfsson call the “Great Decoupling,” the possibility that machines are beginning to destroy more jobs than they can create (in the short term, at least).

A Syllabus

• We’re watching two things this week: “King Joe,” a weird, half-hearted, casually racist cartoon about the dream of a technologized workforce, and the long, terrific Adam Curtis doc All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace… on Ayn Rand and the utopian dream of computers, named for the terrific Brautigan poem.

• The great work theorist Peter Frase has taken on four futures, utopian and dystopian, contained within the move to automation. (He’s turning it into a book!)

• George Saunders contributed a story to Chipotle to bring on their bags hoping for an end to work:

Note to future generations: Still have “bosses”? Bosses still intrusive? Still have “offices”? Future offices = high tech? All you have to do to raise temperature is think, “Raise temperature in office,” computer does? People move from place to place on invisible air-cars? People think: “AirCar, take me to Copy Room,” soon are soundlessly proceeding to Copy Room? Except there is no Copy Room, because paper obsolete, all documents projected on to screen inside brain? Sometimes, for prank, future person sends ton of random copies into brain of friend, friend cannot walk/see, has to feel way to AirCar, say: “AirCar, take me to Frank’s cubicle, am going to kill Frank for flooding my brain with random copies.” In your (future) time, boss can just stay in own (plush) office, nosing into what (excellent, responsible) worker might be writing in own spare time? Worker can send boss mental message: If you are so smart, Mr. Kenner, why branch shrinking, why did you have to lay off Jerry Ringer?

Jerry = good guy. Really miss Jerry. Jerry = dear friend. People still get fired in future? Even person with new baby? Hope not. Hope that, in future, all is well, everyone eats free, no one must work, all just sit around feeling love for one another.

• We think we’ve got a problem, but automation trouble looms largest in the developing world. Countries around the world have universally risen through a ‘sweatshop phase,’ a time-delayed industrialization. Foxconn, the famous producer of Apple products, is automating millions of those gateway Chinese jobs. And our guest Andrew McAfee gives the example of Nike:

 Nike’s successive sustainability reports reveals that the company used 106,000 fewer contract employees around the world in 2013 than 2012 (a greater than 9% drop), even as both profits and revenues increased by 16% and 5%, respectively.

What would you do in a world without work? Leave us a message here.

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