150 years ago, almost everyone in America was involved in agriculture in one way or another. Planting, growing, shipping, selling, preparing food was the chief occupation of the nation. Good “honest work” and everyone understood its value and importance. All of that began to change very rapidly with the coming of the industrial revolution in the late 19th century. People moved by the millions from farms to cities, they relied on paychecks rather than harvest times and their lives were turned over to the industrial process in terms of their survival and well being. On the farm, they ruled their own lives, subject to rains, wind , drought and misfortune. In the cities, the bosses and the owners decided what they would get paid and whatever other benefits, if any, went with the job.
The process of turning work that had been done by hand accelerated, as everyone knows, throughout the 20th century. Radio and television broadcasting came along, newspapers consolidated, old line companies fell by the wayside or disappeared. Toward the end, we had the technology revolution which revolved around processing power that had once resided in huge, room size computers being made much smaller and placed on computer chips and, in comparison, small hard drives and disks. Thousands of job types were eliminated or virtually whipped out (who works as a secretary any more?), but many new types of jobs were created: IT manager, web site developer, computer code writer, information technology specialist...the list goes on and on.
The last three decades have seen truly drastic changes in our country and around the world, most of the changes centering on personal computing and the Internet. Almost all of the educated workforce does jobs today that would be totally unrecognizable to what people did 40 and 50 years ago. The ease of communication and transportation has enabled jobs to be shipped overseas, though manufacturing, which remains high in the United States, employs a small fraction of those it once did. We have out sourced a lot of building things that once were a vital part of the nations economy and psyche.
A bigger change is coming. As computers move from personal instruments of information sharing and pleasure, like on-line games, and into controllers of functions previously handled by human brains and hands, jobs are going to go flying away, once again. With microchips and increasing capacities for making substitute judgments, computers are going to do a lot of what we consider work right now. Almost anything that can be computerized is going to be, soon. This does not mean that humans are becoming obsolete, nor that they will do everything for us while we sit on a couch, eating and getting fatter. What it does mean is that we will have to decide what it means to work and how it is we will get paid.
There is no shortage of work to do in the world. Our own national infrastructure is in various stages of crumbling. New methods of transportation need to be created that do not involve the 19th century methods of moving very heavy pieces of metal down railroads or highways with people inside. We need to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. We need to build electrical recharging stations and/or hydrogen “gas stations” from sea to sea. We need to find ways to lift people, and nations, out of poverty.
The fundamental conflict will be how to pay people to do the work needed and how to decide what work gets priority while other tasks wait. This requires intense debate and society wide cooperation. We are, at present, spending vast amounts of time and money in our national politics fighting about the wrong things. The choice is not between a government that cuts back and does less and one that tries to help the nation. It will become over how we decide to set our goals, find ways to fund them and to do so in a way that is fair toward workers in all segments of society.
Someone is going to have to be making these critical decisions. What we need as a nation and as society cannot be decided entirely by big business and its priorities, because not everything can produce a profit, but people are going to have to have work both to keep their sense of value and sanity, but also to support themselves. The battle between small government and big government is going to seem ridiculous in the face of the coming problems. We are fighting over early 20th century concepts, at best, when we live in the early 21st and must be preparing for great changes ahead.
In the normal course of human events, we don’t, we won’t, deal with these problems until they arrive on our doorstep, big and ugly. If we do that, it will likely cause great disruption and personal hardship to millions of people and, possibly, social and political convulsions on a wide scale. We need to be talking about these problems now and getting ready to formulate answers to this question: what is work in the 21st century? Who decides? Who gets paid to do it and by whom?
We wait to address these problems at our own peril, and that of our children and grandchildren.
Doug Terry, 1.5.15