Editor's Choice

The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change

November 02, 2018


Ellen Ruppel Shell examines the history of jobs, the increasing disappearance of them, and where we go from here.

The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change by Ellen Ruppel Shell, Currency, 416 pages, Hardcover, October 2018, ISBN 9780451497253

My first job out of high school was in a factory, packing bricks and cutting fiberglass. My three older brothers all worked there at one time or another, and each of them took on a job that I have always found hard to fathom. They would travel to foundries around the country on holiday weekends to repair industrial furnaces, crawling into cupolas with 50-pound jackhammers, tearing out the old refractory material and rebuilding them from the inside. These were furnaces that had just been turned off, that were still hot, that my brothers saw literally melt the soles of coworkers’ steel toe boots.

In her new book, The Job, Ellen Ruppel Shell writes:

It’s through work that we exercise our talents and build an identity, through work that we fit into this world. And while our most cherished memories don’t always revolve around our jobs, our hopes and dreams for our future—and the future of our children—generally do.

In the past, we have benefited from innovation both as consumers—in access to new goods and technologies that improved our quality of life—and as workers who got paid in an expanding number of jobs to make them. What happens when that breaks, as it has now—when innovation, in the form of automation and AI, not only doesn’t create new jobs but actively destroys them? Hod Lipson, director of the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University, states unequivocally that “automation and AI will take all our jobs away.” He qualifies that as “nearly all of them,” and this isn’t anything we haven’t heard elsewhere. But what do we do then?

“How do we keep people engaged in a jobless future?” Lipson asks, “What will we do to derive meaning from our lives? That’s the new challenge for any engineer, and we haven’t even fully articulated the problem.” I am not sure why Lipson believes that’s a job for engineers like him to solve for us, but his two questions are those at the heart of the book.

And whose job is it? Many put it on entrepreneurs to create new jobs, but Ruppel Shell, a professor of journalism at Boston University and correspondent for The Atlantic, doesn’t accept easy answers or conventional wisdom. She breaks down the numbers (and Joseph Schumpeter's idea of “Creative Destruction”) and exposes the tenuous link between entrepreneurship and job growth. Once you account for jobs lost when startups fail, as nine out of ten do, “entrepreneurs actually created relatively few lasting jobs.”

This is not the only narrative building block of the business book genre Ruppel Shell removes for investigation. She looks at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of “flow” alongside Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea that we not “merely bear what is necessary” in our lives “but learn to love it.” She examines how the career self-help industry leads many people to ascribe any difficulties in finding work to a personal failing rather than a systemic one, causing 84 percent of unemployed American job seekers to say “yes” when asked whether “something is wrong with me.” She explains how hiring for “culture fit” reduces people to stereotypes and lessens the very diversity of experience and perspective that experts agree is required to construct the best teams and make the best decisions. She exposes how many of the workplace policies touted as progressive and cutting-edge just a few years ago have backfired—unlimited vacation leading people to take less of it, flattened hierarchies and holacracy leading coworkers to exert more control over each other than former bosses had, causing people in those organizations to work longer hours and sacrifice health and family time to be seen as “worthy team members.” She dives into research revealing how unchecked hidden bias is causing rampant hiring discrimination. For instance, the considerations of credentials and fit are very different based on gender. Coming from an upper-class background benefits men applying top law firms, but it hurts women, who were viewed as more likely to quit because they don’t "need the money.”

Looking for the elements that career self-help and management books often argue make jobs meaningful—things like autonomy, complexity, and reward—Shell found that these are not as universally true, or even true at all in some cases. Interviewing a firefighter, she learns that it was most often a social bond to coworkers that they found most meaningful, that “it’s not the act of work that matters … so much as the actors doing the work.”

And for many of us, it is those relationships—not necessarily the job itself—that gets us out of bed in the morning.

Describing the dangers of encouraging people to have passion for their job, she speaks to a fire chief who shares a particularly bad example of it—a firefighter turned arsonist, who set fires for the excitement and opportunity to be a hero.

If you’re a firefighter, you really don’t want autonomy and complexity—you want camaraderie and predictability. The same is true of the kind of job my brothers did, a category of hard labor increasingly described as jobs “Americans won’t do.” But perhaps that’s true only because the base pay was just $11 an hour. The only reason it was at all worth it was the cruel reality that they worked 12 hour days, most often on holidays, so they got paid more than that base in overtime and holiday pay to work in those stifling, claustrophobic conditions. But many of their coworkers were, in fact, immigrants. Two of my brothers' favorites were two men who had fought on opposite sides of the Bosnian War, only to both end up in Milwaukee doing this job together and becoming easy friends discussing their experiences during the conflict. It’s not hard to imagine that, if they found meaning in this work, it was in working alongside each other rather than fighting in opposition. But while this was a way to earn quick money for my brothers in their early 20s, it was those men’s main source of income. The pay was still low, their unemployment uneven, and they were often officially unemployed due to the staggered nature of the work. What if the terms of employment were different? What if those jobs didn’t pull them away from their families every holiday? What if the companies employing their services considered shutting down production at normal times, and allowed them to do the work over the course of a week rather than forcing them to put in ungodly hours over the course of a few days? What if the pay was better?

Unfortunately, even though the Labor Department numbers released this morning show that the economy added 250,000 in October, and that historically stagnant wages are finally starting to tick up a bit, it doesn’t seem that pay is likely to get much better. Ruppel Shell again lays out the numbers. While we have recovered most of the jobs lost in the Great Recession, almost 60 percent of those pay between $7.69 and $13.83, while 60 percent of the jobs in the $13.84 to $21.13 per-hour wage range have vanished. Meanwhile, CEO to worker compensation has gone from 20 to 1 in 1965 to 295.9 to 1 in 2013, with CEO pay jumping 937 percent while real wages for workers has stagnated over that time.

The state of retail workers, who make up an increasing bulk of the labor force, is precarious. Nonsupervisory roles earn an average of $10.14 an hour, and less than half receive benefits. And they are themselves in danger of being automated away by online retail.

Analysts predict that by 2020 one-fifth of the US $3.6 trillion retail market will have shifted online and that Amazon alone will reap two-thirds of that bounty.

Amazon is, of course, at the forefront of automating warehouse jobs, even having patents for delivery drones that could replace those that haul freight if self-driving vehicles don’t get their first. This in not inherently bad. It is an increasing reality we all have to confront:

In this global, digitized economy we can’t rely on the private sector to guarantee long-term employment. Nor can we expect—let alone demand—that the private sector employ people to do jobs that machines can do as well and more cheaply.

And it’s not just blue collar jobs intelligent machines are coming for. “Given that after heart disease and cancer is the third leading cause of death in America,” Ruppel Shell notes, “robots seem a sensible and preferable alternative. To err, after all, is human.” Now, one could make the case that the leading cause of death is life. And unless we’re automating away human life, those humans are going to need to make a living somehow. And, as jobs also help us make meaning through the bonds we form, what happens as we automate away the human interaction jobs create?

The first step is to sort out the elements of work that we need to preserve, elements that expand the narrow confines of what it means to have a “job” to something more fundamental. That is, to sort out and fiercely protect those critical elements of work that are essential not only to our economy and our democracy but to our very humanity.

This is not just a work issue, but an education issue, which is why Ruppel Shell devotes an entire part of the book to “Learning to Labor.” It is an exploration of American educational history, and how—in spite of how “America’s founders saw education as essential not for the training of workers but for the preparation of citizens”—there is a myth of an industrial education system specifically designed to churn out workers that was never quite true (though industrialists certainly tried to make it so).

Most educators have believed that education is “not about turning children into industrial fodder but about guiding them across a threshold of independent thought.” And, economically, a college education probably isn’t as valuable as we’ve been told it is, and it’s getting less so. That is because, while “37 percent of young adults hold a bachelor’s degree,” less than 20 percent currently require it, and that number is not projected to rise all that dramatically any time soon. In fact:

The number of restaurant servers with college degrees grew by 81 percent from 2000 to 2010 according to US Census Bureau figures, while janitors with college degrees rose by 87 percent.

This reality is likely to increase as more people than that even attain higher education and enter a workforce with fewer and fewer jobs. Even in STEM jobs, which so many proclaim as the jobs of the future, the supply of qualified graduates is “two and perhaps three times larger than demand.” Rather than a skills gap in qualified employees, another myth Ruppel Shell explodes with hard numbers, there is a gap in opportunity for skilled workers. She explains how many of the nation’s go-to solutions for displaced workers, like community colleges and job training programs, tends to flood labor markets with people possessing similar skills, driving down wages and further limiting opportunity. In fact, a Labor Department study done in the early ’90s found that those who graduated from a Job Training Partnership Act in the 1980s earned 10 percent less than similar people who hadn’t. Jane Dockery, associate director of the Applied Policy Research Institute at Wright State University in Dayton, suggests that community colleges should probably not be in the job training business for jobs that don’t exist when they get out, and that “community colleges should be doing what colleges were designed to do—encourage critical thinking and inculcate lifelong learning.”

“You know, we can’t predict the future, but we can prepare people to help shape it.”

Ruppel Shell holds up Berea College, a no-tuition liberal arts work college in Kentucky as both a model, and a way to share individual stories that act as an antidote to the stereotypes so many of us have about the rural poor. She paints a picture, supported by research, of how the decline of coal is an opportunity to transition toward renewables, which is already happening in some places and provides more jobs per investment dollar than fossil fuels. She talks in Berea with an instrument maker who installs custom wood floors all over the country, and a hand-made broom maker working toward a degree in arts preservation who tells her, “[T]he liberal arts, humanities, crafts [. . .t]hat’s work only humans can do.” Those crafts have real economic value which could be beneficial to a new jobs strategy:

One strategy is to leverage traditional culture—visual, musical, culinary, literary—to stimulate economic development. To skeptics, this vision may sound utopian, but it’s far more practical than they might assume. On a national scale, arts and crafts play a major role in the economy, generating nearly $729.6 billion annually and employing five million people.

The book also examines worker coops through the story of Evergreen Cooperatives Corporation in Cleveland, a new initiative from the worker-owners of Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, that has launched a renewable energy company and the “nation’s largest urban hydroponic greenhouse.” She tells us about a federation of over two hundred worker-owned cooperatives in Spain, offering it as “living proof that the modern corporate model—where the demands of investors trump the needs of workers—is ripe for disruption.”

Ruppel Shell talks with those leading “The Third Industrial Revolution”—small “punk” manufacturing firms enabled by cheap hardware, cheap software, and the Internet to produce high quality, niche products rather than mass-produced ones, which also change the nature of a manufacturing job:

The maker movement represents a reversal in the process by which oversimplification reduces work to a series of disembodied tasks and workers to a pile of parts.

She looks at the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the Freelancers Union, and other nontraditional ways of organizing workers. She also gives larger companies like Home Depot, Quik Trip, and Market Basket kudos for their labor policies.

Ruppel Shell suggests experimenting with the payroll tax, reducing work hours, and Basic Income Guarantees. She touches on efforts businesses are making themselves to benefit all stakeholders rather than just shareholders, like triple-bottom-line accounting and the creation of the Certified B Corporation. Businesses can’t solve all social ills, but these developments make it less likely they will be the cause of them.

I like to think my job matters because I believe in books deeply, and my job is to promote them. But it is not more important than someone climbing inside a furnace with a jackhammer to keep it working, and to keep all the people who rely on that factory working. Theirs may be a job that no one really wants to do, but I basically have everyone’s least favorite school assignment—writing book reports—as a job. It’s just one of my jobs here, and I can argue that I add context and human consciousness to it, but it is in as much danger of being automated away and done by intelligent machines and AI as the repairing of industrial furnaces, and mine is not as vital to the overall economy as that is. But I hope I can continue to read books and write about them. And I hope that people don’t have to continue breaking their bodies in industrial furnaces.

Ruppel Shell does not equate good work, which has inherent value in the world, with a good job—which often doesn’t. She suggests we can all agree that “good work can be and often is precious beyond its market value.” So how do we take care of the workers doing it in society? Again, “[h]ow do we keep people engaged in a jobless future?” As Hod Lipson asks, “What will we do to derive meaning from our lives? Perhaps engineers haven’t “fully articulated the problem,” but at least one journalist and scholar has, and she offers a lot of potential solutions in The Job.

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