Are jobs obsolete?

This article is very interesting in that, while everyone is talking about the unemployment rate and using that as a measurement on the economic health, the writer Douglas Rushkoff argues that the decline of jobs is actually a direct product of the advancement of our technology. If that’s true, then creating jobs may be a funny thing to do, pretty much for the sake of creating them.



(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 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 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.

The World’s Most Attractive Employers 2010

Top 50 Business

Company Ranking 2010
Google 1
Ernst & Young 3
PricewaterhouseCoopers 4
Deloitte 5
Procter & Gamble 6
Microsoft 7
The Coca-Cola Company 8
J.P. Morgan 9
Goldman Sachs 10
L’Oréal 11
BMW 12
Sony 13
Johnson & Johnson 14
The Boston Consulting Group 15
McKinsey & Company 16
Morgan Stanley 17
Apple 18
IBM 19
Deutsche Bank 20
Nestlé 21
Bank of America / Merrill Lynch 22
adidas 24
Accenture 25
Unilever 26
General Electric 27
PepsiCo 28
Citi 29
UBS 30
Credit Suisse 31
Kraft Foods 32
Bain & Company 33
Heineken 34
American Express 35
Barclays 36
Hewlett-Packard 37
Volkswagen 38
Shell 40
Toyota Motor 41
Nokia 42
Esso/ExxonMobil 43
Intel 44
Dell 45
Pfizer 46
Ford Motor Company 47
Cisco Systems 48
ING Group 49
General Motors 50

Top 50 Engineering

Company Ranking 2010
Google 1
Microsoft 2
Sony 4
Intel 6
General Electric 7
Siemens 8
Procter & Gamble 9
Apple 10
Cisco Systems 11
Johnson & Johnson 12
Hewlett-Packard 13
Shell 14
The Coca-Cola Company 15
Esso/ExxonMobil 16
Volkswagen 17
Toyota Motor 18
Nestlé 19
Ford Motor Company 20
3M 21
Dell 22
General Motors 23
Accenture 24
Philips 25
McKinsey & Company 26
Nokia 27
BP 28
L\’Oréal 29
Schlumberger 30
Oracle 31
Pfizer 32
Bosch 33
Goldman Sachs 34
The Boston Consulting Group 36
DuPont 37
Kraft Foods 38
Bayer 39
Deloitte 40
J.P. Morgan 41
Unilever 42
adidas 43
Lenovo 44
Novartis 46
GlaxoSmithKline 47
Heineken 48
Ernst & Young 49
Morgan Stanley 50


College Inc

Just watched a very interesting PBS video called College Inc. Basically many colleges are struggling financially and investors are coming in to help make them profitable. However, being a for-profit college somewhat turns you into a commercial institution that has the obligations to make profits. Imagine if you were the financially struggling school official making a choice between raising school fund somehow or turning to investors (quick cash but with strings attached), how would you make that decision? Was it a simple financial decision? Or was it a little more than that?

Here is the trailer of the College Inc video:

Watch the College Inc video now! It’s about an hour long btw. 😉