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.

When They Can’t Lay You Off, Employers in Japan Send You to Boredom Rooms

What happens if you’re working in Japan and a company wants to lay you off, and offers you a lucrative early retirement or severance deal? Well, if you choose not to accept the terms, the company has no right to fire you. So what they’ll do instead is send you to work in a so-called “Boredom Room.”

In Japan, lifetime employment has long been the norm and where large-scale layoffs remain a social taboo, at least at Japan’s largest corporations like Sony. The New York Times profiles one man who’s chosen to go into the Boredom Room and spend his workday there: reading college textbooks, surfing the Internet, and who knows what else.

Sony said it was not doing anything wrong in placing employees in what it calls Career Design Rooms. Employees are given counseling to find new jobs in the Sony group, or at another company, it said. Sony also said that it offered workers early retirement packages that are generous by American standards: in 2010, it promised severance payments equivalent to as much as 54 months of pay. But the real point of the rooms is to make employees feel forgotten and worthless — and eventually so bored and shamed that they just quit, critics say.

Labor practices in Japan contrast sharply with those in the United States, where companies are quick to lay off workers when demand slows or a product becomes obsolete. It is cruel to the worker, but it usually gives the overall economy agility. 

However, and this is a point worth emphasizing: critics say the real point of the boredoom rooms is to make employees feel forgotten and worthless — and eventually get so bored and shamed that they just quit.

Read the entire story here.

Charles Bukowski on “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

In 1969, publisher John Martin offered to pay Charles Bukowski $100 each and every month for the rest of his life, on a single condition: that Bukowski quit his job working at the post office and commit to becoming a writer. The then 49-year-old Bukowski did just that, and in 1971 his first novel, Post Office, was published by Martin’s Black Sparrow Press.

Fifteen years later, Bukowski wrote the following letter to Martin and spoke of his joy at having escaped full time employment:

8-12-86

Hello John:

Thanks for the good letter. I don’t think it hurts, sometimes, to remember where you came from. You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it, they don’t get it right. They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’s OVERTIME and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.

You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?

Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”

They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.

Now in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the work place). They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:

“I put in 35 years…”

“It ain’t right…”

“I don’t know what to do…”

They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn’t they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?

I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I’m here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I’ve found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system.

I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”

One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

yr boy,

Hank

In Factotum, he was even more direct:

It was true that I didn’t have much ambition, but there ought to be a place for people without ambition, I mean a better place than the one usually reserved. How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so

Fascinating. It’s incredible I haven’t read Bukowkski before. I am remedying this situation by having ordered the Kindle versions of his books: You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (only $2 on Amazon), Love is a Dog From Hell (also $2), and Women ($3).

###

(via Letters of Note)

America’s Jobs Crisis

Felix Salmon has a good post digesting the latest jobs report. It’s worth reading in entirety, but I like Felix’s idea for job creation in America:

The solution to this problem is nothing complex — the arbitrage is sitting there in the first chart, plain for all to see. The government can borrow at 1.45%: it should do so, in vast quantities, and invest that money back into the economy itself. Take a few hundred billion dollars and use it to fix our broken infrastructure, to re-hire all those laid-off teachers and firefighters, to provide some kind of safety net for the millions of Americans who have been out of work for more than a year. Even if the real long-term return on any stimulus package was zero, the nominal long-term return would be well over 1.45%, making the investment worthwhile.

To put it another way, not all crises look the same. Back in 2008-9, the fact that we were in a crisis was obvious, and it resulted in unprecedented levels of enormous coordinated actions between Treasury and the Fed. Now, however, when we look at the crisis-level spreads in the first chart, we don’t think “crisis” any more — and the sense of urgency that everybody felt in 2008-9 is long gone. How many more dreadful jobs reports do we need before it returns?

 

On Facebook Passwords and Employment

There’s been a lot of talk these days about employers asking potential employees for their social media credentials. Facebook, in particular, has issued strong resistance against this trend, going so far as publicly explaining their stance in a blog post:

The most alarming of these practices is the reported incidents of employers asking prospective or actual employees to reveal their passwords.  If you are a Facebook user, you should never have to share your password, let anyone access your account, or do anything that might jeopardize the security of your account or violate the privacy of your friends.  We have worked really hard at Facebook to give you the tools to control who sees your information. 

As a user, you shouldn’t be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job.  And as the friend of a user, you shouldn’t have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don’t know and didn’t intend to share with just because that user is looking for a job.  That’s why we’ve made it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.

We don’t think employers should be asking prospective employees to provide their passwords because we don’t think it’s the right thing to do.  But it also may cause problems for the employers that they are not anticipating.  For example, if an employer sees on Facebook that someone is a member of a protected group (e.g. over a certain age, etc.) that employer may open themselves up to claims of discrimination if they don’t hire that person. 

Today, The House of Representatives shut down a bill that would have prevented employers from demanding your Facebook password. So, what’s the worst that could happen?

Reginald Braithwaite has a fictional post on the matter titled “I Hereby Resign”. Just imagine if this scenario played out for real (if it hasn’t already somewhere around the world):

One of the new terms is that every prospective new hire allow their manager to “shoulder surf” as they browse their Facebook or better still, to voluntarily log their manager into their Facebook account. If I recall correctly, she claims that we have the obligation to do a “background check” on prospective hires. I’m extremely vague on the correlation between faux-promiscuous sex or drinking and employee performance, but as she is a seasoned veteran, I have to trust her when she says that things like this overrule my judgment as to who is and who isn’t fit to be a programmer in our employ.

I was willing to go along with things and see how they panned out. But today something went seriously wrong. I have been interviewing senior hires for the crucial tech lead position on the Fizz Buzz team, and while several walked out in a huff when I asked them to let me look at their Facebook, one young lady smiled and said I could help myself. She logged into her Facebook as I requested, and as I followed the COO’s instructions to scan her timeline and friends list looking for evidence of moral turpitude, I became aware she was writing something on her iPad.

 “Taking notes?” I asked politely.

 “No,” she smiled, “Emailing a human rights lawyer I know.” To say that the tension in the room could be cut with a knife would be understatement of the highest order. “Oh?” I asked. I waited, and as I am an expert in out-waiting people, she eventually cracked and explained herself.

“If you are surfing my Facebook, you could reasonably be expected to discover that I am a Lesbian. Since discrimination against me on this basis is illegal in Ontario, I am just preparing myself for the possibility that you might refuse to hire me and instead hire someone who is a heterosexual but less qualified in any way. Likewise, if you do hire me, I might need to have your employment contracts disclosed to ensure you aren’t paying me less than any male and/or heterosexual colleagues with equivalent responsibilities and experience.”
I got her out of the room as quickly as possible. The next few interviews were a blur, I was shaken. And then it happened again. This time, I found myself talking to a young man fresh out of University about a development position. After allowing me to surf his Facebook, he asked me how I felt about parenting. As a parent, it was easy to say I liked the idea. Then he dropped the bombshell.
His partner was expecting, and shortly after being hired he would be taking six months of parental leave as required by Ontario law. I told him that he should not have discussed this matter with me. “Oh normally I wouldn’t, but since you’re looking through my Facebook, you know that already. Now of course, you would never refuse to hire someone because they plan to exercise their legal right to parental leave, would you?”
Worth reading in its entirety. Think your stance on this issue doesn’t matter? Think again.

The Farewell Letter to Your Coworkers

The Wall Street Journal has a fun piece on funny or awkward farewell emails people have written to their coworkers upon departure from their employer:

At the law firm Alston & Bird, one departing associate baffled his colleagues by sending everyone a black-and-white photo of himself, with only his name and start and quit dates written beneath “as if it was a tombstone,” says John E. Stephenson, a partner in Atlanta who has been keeping a “Dead Soldiers” file of his colleagues’ goodbye notes for 27 years. “It caused a firestorm because people thought he had died.” The associate had to follow up with another email saying, “I’m not dead. I’m sorry to have concerned so many of you,” Mr. Stephenson says.

I like this parody farewell email from Chris Kula:

For nearly as long as I’ve worked here, I’ve hoped that I might one day leave this company,” he began. “I have been fortunate enough to work with some absolutely interchangeable supervisors on a wide variety of seemingly identical projects—an invaluable lesson in overcoming daily tedium in overcoming daily tedium in overcoming daily tedium.

But the best way to get someone’s attention? Write an email with the subject line “FREE FOOD.”

On Salary Negotiation

Patrick McKenzie, an ex-Japanese salaryman and founder of Kalzumeus Software, has one of the best posts I’ve ever read on salary negotiation. If you’re hunting for a job (and even if you aren’t), the post is worth twenty minutes of your time.

One highlight is this affirmation that you shouldn’t name your price/salary point first:

Every handbook on negotiation and every blog post will tell you not to give a number first.  This advice is almost always right.  It is so right, you have to construct crazy hypotheticals to find edge cases where it would not be right.

For example, if your previous salary was set during the dot-com bubble and you are negotiating after the bubble popped, you might mention it to anchor your price higher such that the step down will be less severe than it would be if you engaged in free negotiations unencumbered by the bubbilicious history.  Does this sound vaguely disreputable to you?  Good.  This vaguely disreputable abuse of history is what every employer asking for salary history, salary range, or desired salary is doing.  They are all using your previous anomalously low salary — a salary which did not reflect your true market worth, because you were young or inexperienced or unskilled at negotiation or working at a different firm or in another line of work entirely — to justify paying you an anomalously low salary in the future.

This is a superb reminder about employers’ full-load costs:

First, get into the habit of seeing employees like employers see them: in terms of fully-loaded costs.  To hire someone you need to pay for their salary, true, but you also have taxes, a benefits package, employer contributions to retirement, healthcare, that free soda your HR department loves mentioning in the job ads, and what have you.  (Trivia: for a US employer of professionals, the largest component after salary is usually healthcare, followed by payroll taxes.)  The fully-loaded costs of employees are much higher than their salary: exactly how much higher depends on your locality’s laws, your benefits package, and a bunch of other HR administrivia, but a reasonable guesstimate is between 150% and 200% of their salary.

Read the rest on Patrick’s blog.