Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Meaningful Employment in the Post-Job World

A friend and I have a theory about Star Trek: it's a secret dystopia. Despite the polish and gleam on the surface there is a deep, disturbing rot at the heart of the Federation. That rot is joblessness. The Federation is a post-scarcity society. Mankind (and its allied species) do not require to work and earn income to support themselves. Humanity is free to 'pursue its potential, and better itself.' It's a high and lofty goal, but I don't think it fits with human nature.

I may be conflating culture with human nature. I am ready to accept that. That said, culture is no so easily cast aside. As I understand people we take great purpose from our work. Not all of us like our work, hell, probably a minority do, but there is a certain satisfaction in working to achieve certain ends and earning a return for it. The more personal satisfying the work the better, no doubt.

I have a bizarre personality quirk; I don't do well with unstructured time. Due to the weather I had yesterday off work. As I sat home, free time to myself I felt restless. I grabbed a shovel and began the largely fruitless task of trying to clear the driveway. The muscles that were sore from the gym are sorer and my hands ache, but I felt a foolish sense of pride at getting it done. I have had a new project for work lately and as I chip away at it I feel satisfied. I don't earn enough money or work enough hours, but it's something.

Our economy seems obsessed with cutting costs primarily through labour. Unemployment may dip but it feels like a big slice of the workforce is hardly working to their potential, or have abandoned the labour force entirely. For the first half of the twentieth century we saw technological innovation spur on employment and create new fields and more employment. In the second half and onwards we have seen human labour be displaced and the fruits of growing productivity go elsewhere. We are on the precipice of entire categories of work vanishing.

People with an eye to the future suggest things like guaranteed annual income to counterbalance the issues that may arise from these things. However, given our culture I don't think it would be healthy to simple create a growing class of people without purpose. Sure, some percentage may dedicate themselves to the arts or self-improvement, but I fear a greater number would lose themselves in leisure, idleness and vice as though on a permanent, hollow vacation growing ever restless.

Unemployment among my generation is disturbingly high in some countries. Underemployment higher still. I hope this prolonged period has not been destructive in the long-term, but there's evidence to the contrary. Look at the North American Rust Belt. Has two generations of economic stagnation benefited those regions? I think these are questions we'll all have to wrestle with in coming years and decades.

No comments: