The Future, Jobs, and Work

Jobs matter. One candidate just lost an election in part because of the perception she didn't care about those without them, and another won on the promise that he can bring them back. The unemployment rate (4.6 percent) tells only a partial story, because there is a larger figure (9.8 percent) that includes those too discouraged to look for work or who want full-time work but have to settle for part-time. The labor force participation rate (62 percent) is the lowest in decades. So creating jobs matters.

But so does creating meaningful work. Jobs provide pay, but not all provide a feeling of contribution, a sense of dignity, doing something we feel good about. In short, many jobs use us but we don't feel put to good use. And, as Lyndon Johnson put it, "to hunger for use and to go unused is the worst hunger of all."

A society that cares about the moral self-worth as well as the financial well-being of its citizens must pay attention to jobs and work. We needs jobs to put food on the table, but we need ennobling work to put fire in the heart. We also need ways to value unpaid work. Parents and grandparents who care for children at home, for example, as well as those who serve as unpaid caretakers for the ill or the elderly gain satisfaction for their hunger for use, but they sacrifice financially in doing so.

This need to focus on both jobs and work is more important to address due to globalization and technology. There is bad but also good news on those fronts. Getting less of the former and more of the latter calls for creative policy, programs, and incentives.

Globalization has outsourced jobs (think manufacturing, apparel and services) to cheaper, foreign labor. In their enlightening book, Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee highlight the impact of technology. Robotics has eliminated assembly jobs, and machines have eliminated jobs such as tellers and toll booth operators, to cite just some examples. Artificial intelligence will begin to replace even more jobs. Truck, cab and Uber drivers may not be able to compete with self-driving vehicles. Amazon is launching amazon.go, a self-service grocery store that eliminates the need for check-out clerks. Jobs at the higher end of the economic ladder will not be immune. Paralegals, medical technicians, and some jobs in education and financial services could find themselves threatened by cognitive computing. This is the bad news.

The good news is that new jobs will be created. If we are smart about it, we can replace jobs that are low pay and low in work satisfaction with those that provide both more pay more and more meaningful work. This will require investment in technologies and partnerships that will dramatically increase the rate of innovation and the associated job creation needed to put the nation at the forefront of new kinds of jobs. In that respect, trying to retain or bring back jobs that are dying because of foreign competition, that are personally or environmentally unhealthy or that can, should or will be automated anyway is a palliative not a cure. Even raising the minimum wage, while an important matter of equity, may just incentivize automation of low-skilled jobs, hastening the day when those who have finally earned a living wage find themselves without any wage at all.

Gaining the good and avoiding the bad must surmount at least two obstacles. The first is that a lot of new jobs demand higher skill levels - especially in the critical thinking use of math, science, technology, and empathy - capabilities that are beyond machines (at least for now). As Brynjolfsson and McAfee note, this requires an education system far better than the one we have. A colleague used to say that we should recall people to school like we recall cars, whenever we find a dangerous defect that needs to be fixed. Viewing affordable, effective education as a lifelong responsibility of the individual and a lifelong commitment of society is essential. Using the current, industrial model of schooling, where it's 12 (or 16) years and out, is failing.

Second, technology may mean we just don't need as many paid jobs to maintain our standard of living. Because a healthy society and a sound psyche will still require meaningful work, we need to provide incentives for people who cannot find, cannot take, or don't need to have jobs. The work of mentoring and caring for people of all ages, preserving the environment, revitalizing public spaces, creating artistic works that ennoble their makers and their audiences, and engaging communities in self-improvement are just some examples. Much of this goes on today; more will be possible and needed. But people who do this important work cannot live on meaningfulness alone. We need to find ways to use the enhanced productivity of the digital economy to create financial incentives (e.g. Social Security credits for caretakers; guaranteed minimum incomes; tax subsidies) that foster people in doing important work without having jobs.

Much has been said about the hollowing out of the middle income segment of society, whose jobs are most endangered by automation, globalization, and dying industries. The hollowing out of the lower income segment, especially in service occupations, due to similar factors, will not be far behind. Harnessing the new economy to create better education, better jobs, and more incentives for unpaid work are unmet challenges we cannot afford to ignore.