Can the Jobs of the Future Feel Work-Free?

David Lee

In a recent TED Talk, David Lee talks about the future of jobs in the wake of automation. It’s not a new topic by any means, but it’s one I’m always willing to talk about. Speaking as someone who works in the already highly automated job of retail (I’m barely necessary except for scanning and stocking) it’s not hard to see what the future looks like.

At least for retail where most tasks are monotonous, repetitive and single-task, Lee says that machines will easily replace these. I think that’s right and I think that’s possibly for the best, depending on how the government and society around us decides to treat that. Is that a problem? Is it a good thing? Should it mean we make new monotonous jobs for a new unemployed generation or perhaps try to innovate past the present-day?

Lee argues that the industry should be the one to take the responsibility. Although a guaranteed minimum income (or a UBI) is a concept Lee sympathizes with, he correctly states that Congress has a hard enough time agreeing on issues of healthcare, minimum wage and so forth. What chance do we have that the government could reach some sort of consensus on such a costly plan that would completely restructure the government in notable ways?

Of course, UBI proponents may argue that it’s tenable from a cost perspective but hearing it debated before and having had it considered many times on this site, I just don’t think that’s the case. And even if it was the case (as in Ed Dolan’s proposal) the means to get it to be cost-efficient would bring me back to Lee’s point: it’s not practical to expect a consensus on cutting that many programs and outright abolishing so many bureaucratic organizations.

As I’ve stated before, there’s no good incentive for government to abolish itself or even limit itself.

Leaving that to the side though I enjoy that Lee talks about the industry improving itself as opposed to the government coercing it out of society. That said, it may be the least of two awful options but expecting the industry to start self-regulating and treating work as a place of dignity and exploration strikes me as unlikely. It also occurs to me that capitalism also has very little reason to abolish or even limit itself.

So Lee is right in a sense that we are the ones who need to create a batter world, not the government. But I’d wager that the “we” that’s really important isn’t the people who can afford to go to TED talks (let alone speak at them) in their spare time. It’s probably going to be better left to the workers themselves instead of the pointy haired bosses.

Lee is also right that the difference between the recent explosion in technology towards innovation is different in some important ways from when farm jobs were lost, for example. It was different when the automobile factories closed down across America and have never quite recovered since. It’s different because relative to these earlier massive losses of employment, it seems as if the growth of automation will come much sooner, say even 10 years from now.

And so there’s less time to prepare for the sort of future that so many people are talking about. If the topic of work isn’t handled in a constructive and empowering way (which I agree with Lee is key) then society could be in trouble. There will be many unemployed people feeling like the purpose in their life is gone, feeling dejected and having no jobs to go to.

Consider the fact that society is already filled with so much discontent and especially from working class and lower-class folks who feel like they’ve been left out of the American Dream. Which is to say nothing of the many homeless people who much of the time cannot panhandle or even squat in abandoned houses left to rot. Increasing that amount of discontent is a powerful ingredient for social unrest and ultimately, some sort of massive upheaval.

But can we really change the nature of work before that happens? Lee seems to think by changing work that involves single-tasks, eliminating the boring aspects and rediscovering what make us human, we can. To Lee’s credit, reducing or even eliminating those jobs that make us feel like we’re more machine than human is a worthy task.

Making it so jobs revolve more around people’s relevant skills and what makes them feel the most empowered instead of whatever makes a given company happy also sounds great. Modeling the future of jobs on occupations like plumbing, nursing and therapists as well as others where surprises and change is a constant (according to Lee) may be another area that could be worked on. But I wonder how much surprise can come from highly centralized, large and hierarchical organizations that are deeply embedded in a system of economic privilege via capitalism and the government?

On the other hand Lee makes good points that if our jobs can be done by AI that we should reconsider its utility to begin with. And perhaps this kind of demarcation could be a useful metric for the future and help employers and corporations figure out what jobs to automate in the future and how to best allocate these freed up resources.

But again, this would be the ideal situation and I don’t trust corporations to allocate these means using current capitalistic markets to be very effective. Even if it’s good to note the harmful effects of work on the human imagination (Lee asks us to consider our “Saturday self” vs. our “Monday self”) I don’t think work can do much about this.

Lee talks about how the organization he worked for (a bank) which held a sort of prototype project that let employees design any sort of project that they wanted. And the results, Lee says, were amazing.

Lee says that the generated “millions of dollars of value” and says:

We started by inviting people to reenvisionwhat it is they could bring to a team. This contest was not only a chance to build anything that you wantedbut also be anything that you wanted. And when people were no longer limited by their day-to-day job titles, they felt free to bring all kinds of different skills and talents to the problems that they were trying to solve. We saw technology people being designers, marketing people being architects,and even finance people showing off their ability to write jokes.

This reminded me of an article on Google’s Twenty Percent Time program that I republished here awhile ago:

Under the directive of management, Google programmers devote 20% of their working time to independent projects of their own choosing. While this program offers the appearance of freedom, it is shown that 20 Percent Time actually has the opposite effect, intensifying managerial control and heightening exploitation.

Similarly I think giving employers and corporations so much control and power over what “empowerment” looks like is the exactly wrong thing to do. Sure, ostensibly, the employees are “free” to make their own decisions but these decisions are still constrained by whatever their bosses think should reasonably count as “work” or “productive”.

That said, the broad themes of trying to stop telling what employees to do and instead asking what they may want out of their job isn’t a bad idea. But again, who is deciding what asking looks like? It’s the managers, the bosses, the stockholders, the people who create the rules to begin with are now being asked to designate how much those rules are going to suddenly stop applying to those people under them.

Now, the incentives here are slightly different and depend from corporation to corporation or company to company (smaller companies may have a better chance here or may not) but on the whole they’re still going to have to grapple with the problem of hierarchy and how information tends to transmit along hierarchical relations (e.g. not well).

It may not always be at the same level as government inefficiency and bureaucracy but corporations (and certainly big box retail stores are among them) would likely struggle giving such freedom to their employees. So where does that leave them? What does that leave the many people who don’t get these sorts of programs or freedoms?

The more positive outlook may contest that perhaps burgeoning industries or companies may adopt these policies if they are successful and happen on a grand enough scale. But (and I know I’m beating a dead horse at this point but…) the people in charge of these failing institutions are the ones who are going to be instating these new policies.

So on a normative level we can fool ourselves that these subtle power plays and networks of effect over employees and their discourse as well as their actions in a company setting are “more free”. But similar with Google I fear that this is really just another way for companies to increase the level of control over their employees conduct.

I don’t say that because I want to be pessimistic or claim that there’s no point in trying, or that there’s nothing to look forward to in things like Lee’s proposals. As I’ve been saying, there are some good ideas here but Lee’s proposals (and others like them) do not strike at the heart of things like capitalism, power and hierarchy. They merely adopt some window dressing that make the exploitation and control we feel in our lives less obviously confining.

And as much as a future that has a less obvious prison might sound, it’s still a prison and it’s perhaps more insidious in a way. We can start to fool ourselves that these programs and the people who deploy them with little input from the employees themselves (which is the main group of folks its affecting to begin with) is some sort of newfound freedom.

But the reality is that power is almost never so easily abolished, it’s usually just hidden.

And honestly?

Not too well.

That leaves the ones who are left to look at these systems of power and introduce new discourses into the field of knowledge around us. To shake up the conversations and try to get people to re-imagine their current situation so they can begin using the tiny bit of freedom we may genuinely get for the much larger freedom we need.

…Side note, can you tell I’ve been reading a lot of Foucault lately?

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