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The Future of Work


No bleaker than it’s ever been

Discussed in this essay: 

The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change, by Ellen Ruppel Shell. Currency. 416 pages. $30.00.

Every other November, American politicians take the stage to promise us back our jobs. They have to—the idea that each able individual can and will find work, if only she is willing to look, is the cornerstone of our national bootstrap ideology. After all, in this formulation, anyone who has a wage has no need for public assistance. The current administration has staked its tenure on “bringing back the jobs” that other nations have “stolen” from us, an ideology that motivated the misguided NAFTA negotiations of 2018. Having thrown away the bargaining chip of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump spent what little leverage remained securing protections for American auto manufacturing jobs; House Democrats have threatened to block the agreement, arguing that Trump’s protections for auto workers don’t go far enough. Both positions avoid the fact that, in the long run, the primary threat to these positions isn’t China or Mexico, but automation. Americans are in denial about the precarious future of work.

The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change, by The Atlantic correspondent Ellen Ruppel Shell, delivers a much-needed reality check regarding the state of American labor. It belongs to a growing body of writing produced by MBAs, former software developers, and journalists devoted to exploring the fate of the American worker post-work. The genre’s doomsday warnings are familiar to many. Instead of being poised to bring work “back” from overseas, developed economies are on the brink of significant and permanent job loss due to automation, a threat that applies to low- and high-skilled labor alike: increasingly, robots are replacing humans in warehouses, machines are parsing documents more efficiently than paralegals, and automatic trading algorithms have the edge on mutual funds. But the root of workers’ woes, Shell suggests, isn’t technological but political in nature: “[I]f it’s not the job of our national representatives,” she writes, and not “the job of economic thinkers to solve the problem of work in the digital age, whose job is it?” The Job takes up the reins, usefully outlining the automation crisis in layman’s terms. It misses a trick, however, by not contextualizing the problem historically. The rift between technological progress and workers’ interests extends back to Adam Smith, and previous failures to resolve the issue can inform us about where we ought to focus efforts now.

Any treatise on work is tasked with a good deal of myth-busting, and Shell offers a competent, if not particularly inspired, deconstruction of some of Washington’s favorite fibs. She points out, as others have, that the positive correlation between productivity and wages has broken down; from 1973 to 2014, “only about 15 percent of productivity growth translated into higher hourly wages and benefits for the typical American worker,” with the remainder being siphoned off into shareholders’ pockets. She debunks the oft-bemoaned “skills gap” that supposedly separates American workers from vacant positions—America in fact overproduces STEM graduates, many of whom have trouble finding jobs. Said skills gap, Shell suggests, is more likely a myth cooked up by tech corporations seeking to subsidize for their labor force, a claim that gains traction when we consider how aggressively IBM lobbied to reauthorize a bill that would continue allocating $1.2 billion in annual federal funding for technical career education programs. “In fact, here’s the stunner,” Shell writes: “overall, digital technology has led to a decline in the demand for the high-level skills that command a high-level wage.” (The one upshot to this finding is that if skills training no longer translates into employment, we might as well sanction education for education’s sake.)

For anyone with a cursory understanding of automation, worker alienation, or technology-induced unemployment, Shell’s introductory analysis can feel a little tedious—she pauses, for example, to offer a muddled explanation of the bell curve (“a sort of inverted letter U with small numbers at each end and the vast bulk of us crowded into the middle”). The real value and pleasure of The Job stems less from this kind of stage-setting than from its specificity and readability: Shell has succeeded in spinning a dismal, dry topic into a series of compelling narratives. The book is the product of many interview hours spent with former marketing executives, investment bankers, craftsmen, students, and creative entrepreneurs, such as the stewards of a cooperatively-owned laundromat. She casts a wide net, offering the reader a sense of what work looks like for the average American today.

It’s a predictably bleak portrait. On the whole, Americans are anxious, alienated, and underemployed. Many of those who are employed face dystopian work environments, as epitomized in reports of abuse in Amazon warehouses: in Pennsylvania, workers toiling away in one-hundred-degree conditions passed out so routinely that Amazon stationed ambulances in the parking lot. (More infamously, Amazon warehouse workers in the UK, terrified of missing delivery targets, opted to urinate in empty plastic bottles rather than risk time-consuming bathroom breaks.) Available job postings often suggest that working conditions are poor across the board. Shell excerpts one listing aimed at aspiring machinists studying at Sinclair Community College in Ohio, many of whom had been laid off from the local branch of General Motors. The description of the “Physical Conditions” of the job includes the following:

  • Work up to 12-hour days with a continuous standing and/or motion on a concrete floor.
  • Lift and carry up to 50 pounds ([for] up to 10 feet) on a continuous basis.
  • Use of abdominal and lower back muscles to support part of the body frequently or continuously over time without “giving out” or fatiguing.

These physical demands are as numerous as the requirements specific to a trained machinist: “Fabricate, repair, and maintain all dyes, fixtures, jigs and other tooling items”; “Work with Tooling Engineers and drawings to recommend design changes and improvements when necessary.” Shell treads carefully in assessing the value of skills training—she’s always measured, quick to acknowledge counterarguments—but the reader gets the sense that the career outcomes for these students will be mixed at best.

One of the more striking contradictions Shell explores is the idea that, in a nation that so values freedom, a surprising number of Americans feel trapped at work. In the white-collar workplace, American corporations are infamous for prioritizing “culture fit,” requiring employees to “merge their identities with the identities of the firm.” Shell shares an anecdote about an advertising executive who once flew to Atlanta for a job interview that included a four-mile team run a group prayer circle. The executive’s refusal to participate in the prayer seemed to overshadow a successful presentation and her myriad credentials; upon returning home, she received an email saying that she had been deemed “less than a perfect fit.” Combined with a lack of agency over work-related responsibilities and schedules, the need to adopt a corporate personality leads to a great deal of playacting that can only exacerbate worker alienation.

Lack of agency is a theme Shell returns to again and again, suggesting that the crisis of American work is in fact plural: not only has automation put millions of jobs at risk, but of those workers who do have jobs, many are experiencing crises linked to loss of identity, purpose, and fulfillment. While job-satisfaction surveys reveal a split between blue- and white-collar workers’ priorities (according to Shell, the former have historically cited coworker relationships and compensation as the most important factors, while the latter value “challenging work”), overall worker contentment has today dipped below the 50-percent mark. Part of this decline in satisfaction could be manufactured—Silicon Valley’s imperative to change the world and follow our passions sets a high existential bar. But a large part of our discontent reflects the physical, emotional, and psychological toll of enduring the American factory, warehouse, or office. Shell notes the response of one immigrant researcher who, upon arriving in the land of opportunity, was flummoxed as to why Americans “in a free-market-driven economy would endure the indignities showered upon them every day in the workplace.”

Shell is a skilled archivist, and the book benefits from her esoteric selection of vignettes. Consider the parable of the Austrian village of Marienthal, which constitutes the prologue of the book. Once the site of a major textile mill, Marienthal workers thrived under the benevolent policies of the local industrialists who, in addition to offering a steady wage, built housing, schools, and hospitals—services that abruptly vanished when the plant closed following the global crash of 1929. A pair of sociologists swooped in from Vienna to record the psychological effects of this mass unemployment. Their findings suggest that, while few villagers fell into destitution (many had pensions and subsistence gardens), the men in particular became mired in existential malaise, losing all sense of time and purpose. The women, by contrast, remained “unpaid” but not “unemployed” in their roles as mothers and household managers. Shell presents the townspeople’s political impotence as a cautionary tale for Americans today: “Deprived of their livelihood,” she writes, “the villagers did not protest or incite political action. Rather, they withdrew.”

The parable of Marienthal is apt, particularly when Americans on both sides of the aisle insist that private-sector CEOs act more like benevolent industrialists. One would think that Jeff Bezos is individually responsible for, and capable of reversing, the predicament of the American worker. “Pay your workers a living wage,” Bernie Sanders demanded in a speech in New Hampshire earlier this September, addressing the Amazon CEO by name. While I have no soft spot for corporate America, it is poor policy to insist that the private sector treat workers better when the economy is designed to incentivize just the opposite. Like the textile plant of Marienthal, no matter how benevolent the current class of corporate moguls, the industries over which they preside, and therefore their respective labor forces, remain vulnerable to the business cycle. The true object of our rage (and to his credit, Sanders seems aligned on this point) should be a government which has failed to redistribute income through the tax system or guarantee affordable healthcare, housing, and education. To place the blame with corporations is to admit once and for all that the government has capitulated to private interests. Which, maybe it has.

Turning to potential solutions to this sorry state of affairs, Shell investigates an experiment in universal basic income conducted in the tiny Canadian farm town of Dauphin, Manitoba between 1974 and 1979, an effort jointly funded by the local and federal governments. Decades later, economist Dr. Evelyn Forget at the University of Manitoba revisited the experiment and found that, counter to pessimists’ warnings that universal income disincentivizes work, only new mothers and teenage boys decreased their working hours; they used the stipend to extend maternity leave and stay in school beyond the tenth grade, respectively. (It isn’t obvious why an overall decrease in working hours should necessarily have been a negative outcome, though one could assume that a massive decrease would undermine tax revenue and therefore public funding for the program.) At 60 percent of the poverty threshold, the stipend was “not enough to allow people to escape poverty,” but just enough to provide recipients with the freedom to fill dental cavities, fish, garden, and invest in entrepreneurial activities, such as buying a truck to haul homegrown produce to the local market.

The role that gender plays in Shell’s allegories of Marienthal and Manitoba and the wage shocks experienced there should be obvious. For a housewife or busy mother, the introduction of individual basic income is the introduction of choice. With the cushion of a base wage, she may shift her energies toward unpaid household duties (e.g. spending more time with her newborn) or toward pursuits without immediate economic reward (e.g. attending night school).

That the demands of maintaining a household compete with a woman’s ability to earn a wage outside the home—and that economic conditions require so many women to do both—was a paradox Marxist feminists sought to address in the 1970s. The Wages for Housework movement brought technological progress, worker liberation, and the struggle for gender equality under a single umbrella; in essence, the “job” of the housewife had not been “threatened” enough by technological advancement. While vacuums and dishwashers greatly reduced the burden of housework, these appliances hardly eliminated the need for housekeeping, which remained unacknowledged as a form of labor. The movement called upon the state to compensate women for the invisible work they performed, arguing that offering a wage for the behind-the-scenes tasks of cooking, cleaning, raising children, and preparing husbands to go to work would bring women from the private into the public sphere as recognized members of the labor force.

Activist and scholar Angela Davis, more classically Marxist in her thinking, pushed this idea of a base wage even further in her 1981 treatise Women, Race and Class, arguing that a wage alone hardly ensures worker dignity, agency, or security. Far from increasing women’s social and political status, the experience of domestic servants of color tells “[q]uite a different story” about receiving wages for housework: “In the United States women of color—and especially Black women—have been receiving wages for housework for untold decades,” enduring every indignity that low-paid workers in an unregulated, private environment can be expected to endure. By the 1930s, Davis notes, nearly three in five black women were employed as domestic servants in white households, often working fourteen- and fifteen-hour days, only to return home to perform an evening shift. Davis’s alternative to offering wages for housework is to ensure, in essence, that everyone has a housekeeper; socializing household tasks like meal preparation and childcare not only furthers women’s liberation, but presages “an end to the profit-motive’s reign over the economy.”

One need not support a planned economy to recognize the logic of Davis’s critique: without real influence over the means of production or their immediate working conditions, waged and unwaged workers alike will be exploited. Half a century earlier, Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-Jewish socialist firebrand of turn-of-the century Berlin and another classical Marxist, expanded upon the tensions inherent between technology, laborers, and consumers under capitalist conditions. Before her death in 1919, she argued that while it is “clear that in the technique of production, the interest of the capitalist agrees, up to a certain point, with the progress and development of capitalist economy,”

the isolated worker finds himself in a decidedly different position. Each technical transformation contradicts his interests. It aggravates his helpless situation by depreciating the value of his labor power and rendering his work more intense, more monotonous, and more difficult. Insofar as trade unions can intervene in the technical department of production, they can only oppose technical innovation. But here they do not act in the interest of the entire working class and its emancipation, which accords rather with technical progress and, therefore, with the interest of the isolated capitalist.

Davis and Luxemburg’s arguments anticipate an increasingly pressing question: Why not give everyone a base wage, regardless of the nature of the work one performs? In an economy as rich as ours, the answer to the age-old dilemma, “What should a worker be paid?” should be, quite simply: the minimum it takes to live a life of dignity. America’s problem with work is a fundamentally political issue, as Shell suggests, but we tend to frame it as a moral one. Our national hesitation over welfare or UBI stems from the assumption that certain people don’t deserve it—haven’t earned it—and so would somehow abuse the system. As if one could abuse the provision of basic material rights.

The value of work has always been an elusive concept, made even more ephemeral in an age when most production requires little individual ingenuity, much hardship (whether it’s “culture fit,” zero benefits, or unreasonable physical demands), and a lower human-to-machine ratio than ever. Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when economies were simpler, classical economists disagreed bitterly over how to quantify labor’s role in the economy: Is it the amount of labor required to produce a good (David Ricardo) or the cost of producing a good (Adam Smith) that determines general prices? Smith’s own attempts to come up with a labor theory of value—or to peg prices to the amount of labor involved in the production process—were stymied by the near impossibility of modeling the diverse merits of a heterogeneous workforce; workers are individuals, and individuals vary. Automation (and supply-demand models) would seem to solve this puzzle by eliding the individuality of the worker altogether. Work has become so automated, and workers so interchangeable, that employers are essentially rendering us homogeneous.

It used to surprise me that experts on the subject of automation and work tend to shy away from framing the “problem of work in the digital age” as a new chapter in an ongoing debate. Ricardo himself expressed concern over technological unemployment as early as 1821, at a moment when the Industrial Revolution seemed inextricably and positively linked to job creation. I wonder now if the reluctance to historicize our present predicament is due in part to America’s allergy to socialism; as a country we exhibit, as Shell argues, a counterexample to Wagner’s Law, according to which “concerns for social welfare emerge naturally from prosperous free-market societies.” Admitting the historical persistence of the work crisis requires us to acknowledge the merits of the equally persistent socialist solutions. The most widely proposed palliative to massive job loss, universal basic income, is founded on the premise that, in a wealthy nation, some parts of an otherwise free-market economy should in fact be planned.

Shell, to her credit, flirts with the history of economics and socialist thought. She quotes Adolph Wagner, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx, and continually reminds Americans that the illusion of our fierce individualism comes at a high cost—rejecting public services intensifies income inequality and leaves more of us with less. She dedicates a chapter to the rise of worker-owned businesses, craft collectives at Brooklyn Navy Yard, and “punk makers” who are using 3-D printing as a way to seize the means of production and place capital in the hands of “the little guy (or gal).” These case studies illustrate how collective ownership can transfer wealth and power from employer to employee. She also devotes a paragraph to Louis Kelso, a lawyer in San Francisco who echoes Luxemburg’s argument that while “a worker’s productivity is enhanced by machines … if he does not own that machine he does not actually ‘own’ that productivity; rather, his employer does.”

But for all the will toward illuminating and distilling a complicated issue for public consumption, few authors writing on the future of work, Shell included, seem interested in contextualizing our current moment as contiguous with previous centuries’ struggles over worker security and the dignity of labor. We find ourselves at a crisis moment that should feel familiar but, due to a general amnesia about social and economic history, seems frighteningly new. If it’s true, as Shell says, that the problem of work is not really about “scarce opportunities” but the lack of public will to “frame the challenges clearly and honestly,” then it feels anticlimactic for her to conclude, “[Do] we agree that every American [should] be entitled to a shot at liberal education, income security, and a purpose-driven life? If these are the basics, let’s find a way to make them happen.”

Workers have been trying to “make it happen” for a long time now. Shell has gathered the kindling of true systemic change—social trust, collective ownership, experiments with universal basic income, the concern over alienation—and writes with compassion, heart, and verve. But she’s left the job of striking the match up to someone else.

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