A World Without Work?

Are the machines taking over our world? Will they replace the jobs of the future? Derek Thompson explores in his essay at The Atlantic titled “A World Without Work.” Some notable passages below:

What does the “end of work” mean, exactly? It does not mean the imminence of total unemployment, nor is the United States remotely likely to face, say, 30 or 50 percent unemployment within the next decade. Rather, technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work—that is, on wages and on the share of prime-age workers with full-time jobs. Eventually, by degrees, that could create a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society.

After 300 years of people crying wolf, there are now three broad reasons to take seriously the argument that the beast is at the door: the ongoing triumph of capital over labor, the quiet demise of the working man, and the impressive dexterity of information technology.

The post-workists are certainly right about some important things. Paid labor does not always map to social good. Raising children and caring for the sick is essential work, and these jobs are compensated poorly or not at all. In a post-work society, Hunnicutt said, people might spend more time caring for their families and neighbors; pride could come from our relationships rather than from our careers.

The post-work proponents acknowledge that, even in the best post-work scenarios, pride and jealousy will persevere, because reputation will always be scarce, even in an economy of abundance. But with the right government provisions, they believe, the end of wage labor will allow for a golden age of well-being. Hunnicutt said he thinks colleges could reemerge as cultural centers rather than job-prep institutions. The word school, he pointed out, comes from skholē,the Greek word for “leisure.” “We used to teach people to be free,” he said. “Now we teach them to work.

And then this:

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments. “There is a loss of status, a general malaise and demoralization, which appears somatically or psychologically or both,” says Ralph Catalano, a public-health professor at UC Berkeley. Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury. The very things that help many people recover from other emotional traumas—a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose—are not readily available to the unemployed.

Derek Thompson’s conclusion:

One theory of work holds that people tend to see themselves in jobs, careers, or callings. Individuals who say their work is “just a job” emphasize that they are working for money rather than aligning themselves with any higher purpose. Those with pure careerist ambitions are focused not only on income but also on the status that comes with promotions and the growing renown of their peers. But one pursues a calling not only for pay or status, but also for the intrinsic fulfillment of the work itself.

When I think about the role that work plays in people’s self-esteem—particularly in America—the prospect of a no-work future seems hopeless. There is no universal basic income that can prevent the civic ruin of a country built on a handful of workers permanently subsidizing the idleness of tens of millions of people. But a future of less work still holds a glint of hope, because the necessity of salaried jobs now prevents so many from seeking immersive activities that they enjoy.

Very interesting food for thought.

“The Things You’ll Miss” by Derek Thompson

Writing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson recounts the last few months of his mom’s life (who was battling pancreatic cancer) and his ability to cope with the grief after she passed away. It’s a beautiful, poignant piece titled “The Things You’ll Miss.”

A boundless black terror is how I imagined life without my mom. The history of grief, or what we know of it, is written by its greatest sufferers and ransacked with horror stories, lugubrious poetry, and downward-spiraling memoirs plunged in sadness. For some people, the death of a loved one is truly life-stopping, and I worried it would stop mine.

Then, in the weeks after she died, something strange happened. I did not plunge. Life did not stop. Instead, I felt something so unspeakably strange, so blasphemous, that I wondered for if I could talk or write about it, at all. I felt okay.

Even stranger, I discovered, is that I wasn’t strange, at all. Despite the warnings that grief would drag me through the prescribed five stages and discard me in a darker place, bereavement researchers have recently learned that we’ve been wrong about loss for centuries. For some, grief is a dull and unrelenting ache that fades—or doesn’t. But for many of us, grief is something else. Grief is resilience.

I loved this passage of retelling of happy stories:

For the 16 months after her diagnosis, I returned the favor. We never spoke of the food she couldn’t eat, the thick hair she couldn’t grow back, or the weight she couldn’t keep. Instead, riding home from New York once a month and bounding onto her bed, I’d serve a feast of happy stories harvested from a life spent trying not to worry. I cried often, but privately, in the stairway at work, on the train behind a pair of sunglasses, and in my apartment, indulging a memory behind a locked door. But I only lost it twice in front of her, both times trying to say the same thing: What makes me saddest isn’t imagining all the things I’ll miss, but imagining all the things you’ll miss. The wedding dances, the wine-fueled parties, her birthday cards, each emblazoned with ludicrously incorrect ages. For mom, who drew kinetic energy from every drip of living, as if by photosynthesis, and braved the winter of life with spring in her heart, smiling like a sweet little maniac all the way to the end, cancer was such cosmic robbery.

This is a beautiful passage, how grief is like undulating waves:

Mourning, even for the resilient, is a study in extremes, and, for the family and friends filling out our house, the crescendos were violent. We would scream at each other, and then laugh over wine, and then scream some more, and back to the wine. Grief is not a steady process, Bonanno said, but rather an “oscillation,” like everything inside of us. Muscles tighten and relax, our bodies warm and cool, and so do our tempers. In that house, in those last days, we might have thought of ourselves as individual antibodies, pinging around the home, attaching ourselves to tasks to invent a small sense of utility. But we were also one house, one body, mourning to and fro.

A must-read in its entirety.

Why Do All Movie Tickets Cost the Same?

Derek Thompson over at The Atlantic has some great answers this basic question: why do movie tickets cost the same, regardless of the budget of the film? After all, shouldn’t supply and demand dictate prices? Why should you pay the same $12 to see a low budget Indie film vs. a Hollywood blockbuster? He offers the following reasons (emphasis mine):

1) Theaters do price discriminate already, kind of, but they do it with space. At the multiplex, not all theaters are alike. Bigger movies get more theaters with better technology. Smaller movies get older theaters with smaller screens.

2) You can’t consistently cut prices after a successful opening weekend. If people knew that ticket prices would fall after a big opening, many more would wait until the second or third weekend to see it, which would, ironically, destroy the meaning of opening weekends.

3) Price can repel as easily as it attracts, because it’s a signal of quality. If your a theater showing one movie for $6, one movie for $10, and another for $12, perhaps fewer people will see the $6 movie because they assume it’s garbage.

4) Cheaper tickets lead to higher policing costs. I’m a cheapskate, so I might buy a ticket to see cheap, cheap Iron Lady and sneak into Sherlock Holmes. This would create a fascinating incentive for art-house studios to release smaller, cheaper films the same weekend as blockbusters, knowing that thousands of canny consumers might buy fake tickets to their show to sneak into the more expensive blockbuster.

5) Price discrimination offers more opportunities for other movie theaters to steal each others’ audience. Once again, I’m very cheap, so I don’t mind taking the metro way across town to see Sherlock Holmes for significantly less money if one multiplex starts to mark up its blockbusters.

Full post here.