Recently, I ran into this article by Douglas Rushkoff, asking, “Are Jobs Obsolete?” I highly recommend reading the piece in its entirety.
Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff — it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.
…we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.
This line of questioning our current employment crisis intrigues me. For ten years now, I have been self-employed. Every day that I wake up, I need to justify to clients that my services are worth something. Every day, I show my work value to potential clients and they agree or they disagree with the value I bring to their real estate needs.
As Rushkoff points out, it used to be that folks would do what they did best and trade for what they needed or wanted:
They made shoes, plucked chickens, or created value in some way for other people, who then traded or paid for those goods and services. By the late Middle Ages, most of Europe was thriving under this arrangement.
It was not until the Renaissance that folk began to work for organizations or corporations. Since, workers and employers have consistently been searching for ways to make our work lives easier. Be it the assembly line or desktop computer, we have yearned for an easier way to work or have work done for us by automation.
‘Easier’ Work is Luxury, Right?
Could it be that our high unemployment rate is a victim of our drive towards efficiency? We have more than we actually need to live, we have some of the world’s richest poor folks and yet we are spinning our wheels as a country trying to “solve” this employment problem.
I know that in my own work, I look for tools and systems that allow me to be more efficient and effective with the resources and time I have at my disposal. A recent acquisition is enabling me to spend less time printing documents for signatures and more time focusing on the needs of my clients. If I had not been looking towards making the administrative side of my business more efficient for myself, I might have found myself, more rapidly, in a position to hire someone to do those admin tasks.
And then Seth Godin drops this tidbit:
There’s a race to the bottom, one where communities fight to suspend labor and environmental rules in order to become the world’s cheapest supplier. The problem with the race to the bottom is that you might win…
You see, Seth posits that work that is repetitious and can be systemized, will be. As civilization battles with this shift, efficiencies increase. It was in the inefficiencies, in communication, in geographic location that companies were able to charge more and employees could expect a stable, secure job.
When everyone has a laptop and connection to the world, then everyone owns a factory.
Let’s face it: most folks reading this post live in North America. We do not want for much in our countries. Scarcity is a word and concept that is not oft used to describe much of our lives. Unless, of course, we are talking about our attention span…
I recently attended the TEDxDetroit 2011 conference and was blown away by a young, happenstance, entrepreneur. While attending classes in the winter and completing a project for one professor, Veronika Scott, a design student, sees a homeless person living in a makeshift tent literal steps from a homeless shelter. She pokes her head into the shelter, and begins to design a coat/sleep bag with folks in the homeless shelter.
Not only did she create a coat that allows the homeless to stay warm, she has begun to employ some of the very homeless that she originally worked with to design the coat. One of her employees, a seamstress, has now moved into an apartment with her three children and is now actively looking to get more into industrial textile manufacturing.
One college student. One happenstance walk down a sidewalk. Some guts.
What “job” actively makes things like this happen? Is this a repeatable, systemize-able workflow? And yet, I am beginning to believe, this is a glimpse of what the new definition of employment is becoming. It is not easy to compartmentalize, label, and analyze.
Employment could very easily be redefined as re-assembling thoughts, ideas, services and products in more efficient manner.
Have idea and laptop, will produce.
[Or, as my friend Dan points out: Acta Non Verba]