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The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century

September 13, 2016

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Ryan Avent's new book explores the future of work and society.

 

Ryan Avent, a senior editor and economics columnist for The Economist, believes the digital revolution is very similar to the industrial revolution in many ways. The big difference is that the industrial revolution was powered by human labor, and the promise (and potential problem) of the digital revolution is that it will free us from labor. The labor movement of the last century helped write the existing social contract, but that contract's time seems to be just about up. What do we do when our labor is no longer needed? What happens when work no longer works? It is a fundamental, foundational question for individuals and society. It is a question brilliantly addressed by Ryan Avent in The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century.

 

Work is not just the means by which we obtain the resources needed to put food on the table. It is also a source of personal identity. It helps give structure to our days and our lives. It offers the possibility of personal fulfillment that comes from being of use to others, and it is a critical part of the glue that holds society together and smoothes its operation. Over the last generation, work has become ever less effective at performing these roles.

 

That is largely because there is less work to do. Factory jobs were once plentiful, and they paid well. Those jobs are gone. Globalization has been partly to blame, but that has just shifted jobs from one place to another. Automation, on the other hand, has removed the need for many of them altogether. Those still at work are also more productive than ever, augmented in their work by the technologies that may replace them altogether someday. That all means there is now an abundance of labor at hand. Those who build, own, and are adept at manipulating the technologies are generating great wealth, but it is not reaching the masses because it is not generating a wealth of new jobs. 

 

What is missing from the conversation is a clear explanation of how rapid technological change is compatible with both rising employment globally and disappointing growth in wages and productivity. And while it may be correct, as post-work prophets … foresee, that a world of technological prosperity and plenty awaits us in the distant future, it is wrong, I would assert, to characterize the digital revolution as something entirely different from anything that has come before.

 

I think that last point is very important. As is the fact that we are still living at a point in history when more people are more well off than ever before. But there have been a lot of folks left behind in this economic upheaval, and it has led "to a more poisonous and less generous politics." We've seen the rise of more extreme candidates on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the ocean, and it is likely to intensify. It is a development that mirrors, again, the rise of radical political movements that arose as the industrial revolution "destroyed old social orders in a similar way." Some of the things that came out of them, like public education and universal suffrage, have greatly benefitted society. Some of the systems, like communism and fascism, ripped entire societies apart. The trick, then, is to find the solutions like expanded education and enfranchisement without the turmoil of world wars—or even cold wars.

In considering thisAvent warns against a lazy "makers-and-takers" way of thinking, though, and suggests that we remember we all contribute to the culture we're a part of: 

 

A makers-and-takers conception of the world is one that neglects the social foundation on which wealth is built. We aren't merely divided into makers and takers. We are participants in societies, operating according to a broad social consensus. When that consensus breaks down, the wealth goes away.

 

It is this idea that "Wealth has always been social," and always will be, that holds the potential for both high drama and great hope. The industrial revolution led to actual revolutions in many places, and involved great upheavals and social struggles that ripped the world over and over and again before a new order was established. The digital revolution is now reopening negotiations of the social contract that came out of those battles. To explore the forces at work, and some thoughts on how best to align them so that all benefit, throw your hat in the ring for a copy of Ryan Avent's The Wealth of Humans.

We have 20 copies available. 

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