Many articles pertinent to American employment reach my desk, and not all of them are on subtopics, such as self-driving cars, Uber-Lyft-Airbnb, robots, or the minimum wage, which can support an entire post. Still, they are important, and any of their subjects could, as the driverless vehicles did last year, grow into a booming and attention-getting area.
The first, from June 23, is on a subject on which I have written several times, that of a guaranteed citizen’s stipend. In “Basic Income Revisited” (Project Syndicate, June 23), Robert Skidelsky, a British emeritus political economy professor, doesn’t revisit as much as introduce it, naming ever-increasing inequality from automation as a possible future cause, saying that “unless we change our system of income generation, there will be no way to check the concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich and exceptionally entrepreneurial.” As we will see, he’s hardly the only observer seeing that. I maintain that the perceived problem with inequality, which indeed will not go away by normal means, is actually one of insufficient resources for ordinary people, which can be resolved in a variety of ways, including guaranteed income.
In Forbes, George Anders, a grade-school friend of mine many decades ago who, like me, loved chemistry but ended up in business instead, wrote July 26th’s “Is Tech Killing U.S. Jobs? The Actual Data Is Surprising.” He correctly pointed out that relatively few people even now are employed in information technology, but that many more have jobs connected with business-related services much less used a couple of decades ago, such as surveys, planning events, and graphic design. He acknowledged that computers had ended many positions, such as executive secretaries (down from 1,130,000 to 666,000 from 2010 to 2015), and yet that, Expedia and the like notwithstanding, there were still 67,000 American travel agents. His points seem to be that jobs come and go in unexpected places, and that the effect on information systems on employment has been neither great nor horrendous but somewhere in the middle. I think the time we spent together poring over 1966 baseball cards helped him learn how to understand numbers, as it did for me, and it shows here.
In a counterpoint to last year’s press on the intensity of their jobs, we found out from the late Scott Eric Kaufman in Salon on August 29th, in “Amazon to test full-time, full-salaried 30-hour work week” that the online retailing behemoth will try something I’ve recommended for years. Although that company’s management’s intentions may be good, I see no chance that their managers will truly end up working that little. The trap they are falling into is similar to that of eliminating performance reviews, which does not end employee assessment and selection for promotions but merely pushes it underground. As they are knowledgeable enough to be aware of that, I can’t take their effort seriously.
A new set of temporary employees, “Migrant Workers in Recreational Vehicles,” made the pages of The New York Times on October 21. Author Christopher Farrell described “modern-day nomads” who move around the country, working seasonal opportunities. They may take difficult physical jobs, such as bringing in agricultural harvests, but are hardly poor, with many old enough to get pension, retirement account, and Social Security income as well. There are now millions of over-50 Americans with similar work and life characteristics, who in decades past would have been either fully retired or still in their earlier careers, forming a growing set of gig workers providing another way for companies to fill jobs without expensive full-time employees. That is only one more effect of the permanent jobs crisis.
In Harvard Business Review on the same date, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox asked “What Happens When Careers Last 20 Years Longer?” The article didn’t match the title, a good thing since while lives are getting longer careers are not, and addressed how companies might deal with those in different stages of life, from emerging adults not ready for permanent full-time work to the mushrooming count of those over 60 starting businesses. She made a good common-sense point rebutting those avoiding nepotism, that “it may prove a lot easier to manage dual career couples which they both work for you.” When I was at AT&T two decades ago, 13% of company employees were married to another one, and that did, indeed, help them continue professionally and stay together personally.
Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about technology and innovation? The Economist’s October 22nd Schumpeter column, “Techno wars,” surveys both sides and how they both get confused about productivity as opposed to jobs, progress as opposed to lifestyle improvement, and cash income as opposed to unquantified free resources unavailable scant years before. These are all different things, and this page-long piece could be expanded to a book in which the author would keep them straight.
Two November 27th articles, “Q&A: Political economist Eberstadt on men without jobs” in Fox Business and “Jobless by choice – or pain?” from Robert J. Samuelson in The Washington Post, addressed the issue of fewer men in the workforce, which I documented in Work’s New Age almost five years ago. Nicholas Eberstadt additionally told us that over three times as many men aged 25 to 54 are “neither working nor looking for work” for every one officially unemployed, and that the United States has “had by far the worst drop in male workforce participation.” Samuelson also seemed to be just discovering things he could have read in my 2012 book, such as “the work ethic is such a central part of the American character that it’s hard to imagine it fading” and that those out of the workforce “spend about eight hours a day… watching TV, playing video games or just hanging out.” Though he added the depressing news that “nearly half of male dropouts report taking pain pills every day,” he, and Eberstadt, are behind the curve.
“A Dilemma for Humanity: Stark Inequality or Total War.” What a title! It’s from The New York Times on December 6th, on a piece in which Eduardo Porter interviewed history professor Walter Scheidel, whose January book, The Great Leveler, will argue that only something as extreme as “all-out thermonuclear war” can stop our increasing inequality. That echoed my second-to-last Work’s New Age paragraph, in which I warned that “if we maintain the idea that any decent person has the opportunity to work” we would choose between various disastrous consequences, including “vast numbers of our countrymen without hope, health, or possessions.” I disagree with the implication here that equality should be our goal, and don’t understand why guaranteed income, to name just one possible comprehensive solution, would not be effective. Maybe that will be in Scheidel’s book.
Two more pertinent articles came out only Wednesday, but both can be addressed quickly. Dylan Love’s NBC News “Is Universal Basic Income the Answer to an Automated Future?” is a short overview of that idea, punctuated by recent automation-related news. Samuelson’s Washington Post “What’s really to blame for the productivity slowdown” starts with “our thinking about productivity is cockeyed,” which it is, if we refuse to realize that so many of our new positions are in areas such as restaurants, retail, and home health care where employers don’t get even $25 per hour value from their workers.
I’ll end on a more forward-going note by mentioning “Luxembourg boldly goes into asteroid mining” (Financial Times, May 5th). There is almost unimaginable mineral wealth on those things between Mars and Jupiter, and if you see science fiction writer Larry Niven’s Future History series, you will get an idea of the prosperity, the culture, and, yes, the jobs that harvesting it could create. Full marks to little Luxembourg with its second-in-the-world GDP per capita, which, if they get somewhere with that, will become even richer. If they’re not big, at least they can think big – and so can we.